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British Columbia Forests Support Intricate Life Web

Reese Halter / The Calgary Herald

Recently, while travelling on the eastern seaboard, I was asked by schoolchildren where the most remarkable remaining wild forests in North America were located?

My answer: British Columbia.

The land base of British Columbia is an astounding 95 million hectares and it contains picturesque fjords, jagged peaks, glaciers and more than 70 per cent of the 409 species of birds and 163 species of mammals known to breed in Canada. It's biologically rich; and the critters depend upon forests for their habitat.

Globally, forests recycle rain, create oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, hold soils in place and control the flow of water to rivers, which in many cases feed oceans. Ultimately, forests provide us with the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and over 7,000 medicines.

B. C. s forest ecosystems are young--14,000 years ago glaciers a couple kilometres thick receded, very quickly. Lichens--those half algae and half fungus-- landed first on bare rocks, secreting acids, working with frost and other weathering processes making small openings for mosses and with the help of bacteria created the first soils.

The trees--lodgepole pines, spruces, hemlocks, firs, larches, aspens, alders, poplars and birches--invaded the lands and quickly colonized them.

The diversity of landforms and the types of forests are breathtaking; ecologically each forest type is a jewel. They all evolved to cope with change; wildfires, insect infestations, diseases, avalanches and 200 km/h winds.

The Garry oak woodlands of the southern tip of Vancouver Island are gorgeous. They rely on the Stellar's Jay to eat the acorns and help to distribute the trees by burying acorns in the ground and forgetting about them.

Sitka spruce along the west side of Vancouver Island, continuing for 3,000 kilometres into Alaska, are the monarchs of the coastline. They tolerate the onslaught of salty ocean air and live almost 1,000 years reaching heights surpassing 95 metres.

Rufous, Anna's, black-chinned and calliope hummingbirds appear in these forests in late spring or early summer. They travel at 80 kilometres an hour and have migrated over 2,700 kilometres from their wintering habitat in Mexico. With rolling shoulders and 200 wing beats per second, these critters are Nature's helicopters. They must visit at least 1,000 flowers a day, drinking nectar for energy and inadvertently cross pollinating the plants.

Equally impressive are the colossal-sized western red cedars. One tree on Meares Island near Tofino has a staggering circumference of 20 metres. The wood is highly rot resistant and the First peoples of B. C. used it for houses, totem poles, dugout canoes, bentwood boxes, paddles and ceremonial drums.

Twenty five per cent of the world's bald eagles live in those forests and many of their inter-generational nests weighing a whopping 1,800 kilograms are high up in the treetops.

These forests also provide crucial habitat for the rare red-ochre or salmon coloured coastal wolves along the Great Bear rainforest that are dependent upon the intact ancient forests that provide streams for hundreds of millions of breeding salmon.

It turns out that those salmon not only feed the wolves, ravens, eagles, bears (spirit, black and grizzlies) and 196 other species of animals, but also 80 per cent of the marine-based nitrogen comes from the remains of salmon carcasses dragged from the stream into the forests.

Perhaps the tallest tree to ever live on the planet grew in Lynn Valley--a Douglas-fir in the 19th century was felled and measured at 138 metres.

These ancient, exquisite forests are home to the endangered spotted owls. Each owl eats about 100 flying squirrels a year; each flying squirrel is responsible for fertilizing the old growth forests by spreading soil fungus spores in its poop.

Billions of aspen trees in the far north are a critical food source for beavers and moose. Beavers regenerate aspen forests by breaching their damns and flooding the land. Aspens respond by growing new forests for existing mature root systems.

In the autumn, the deciduous subalpine larches of southern B. C. turn golden; they are home to the most complete and supreme mountaineer on the continent-- the magnificent mountain goat.

The intricate web of life in the forest provides an essential place for every organism, whether a 2,000-year-old coastal yellow cedar or a glorious yellow glacier lily or microscopic soil bacteria.
Dr. Reese Halter is a public speaker and conservation biologist. His upcoming book is entitled the incomparable Honey bee, rocky mountain books. He can be contacted through www.Drreese.com