At the base of the Great Bear Rainforest, where tide and land converge, its inhabitants are clad in sleek blubber, scales, and fur. But farther up the mountains live beasts with shaggy fleece, tawny hides and hooves.
Yanking up juicy, shallow-rooted wildflowers, these cold-hardy hoofed mammals graze beneath the watchful eyes of hunting birds that wheel overhead, casting shadows below as they coast on cool wind currents.
Dining on delicate fauna high above the lowlands sounds idyllic, but these animals don't always have it easy—in fact, as species integral to the entire Great Bear Rainforest ecosystem, hoofed mammals often need the vegetation of the lower forests, as well, to survive.
Hoofed mammals (also called “ungulates”) are specially suited for life at the top—their split hooves splay out to grip the uneven rocks and are cushioned inside to ease the shock of leaping on hard terrain, and their dense under-fur helps protect them from the cold, harsh winds of the exposed ridges where they live and graze.
Even so, many hoofed mammals, such as the black-tailed Sitka deer, venture down the mountain to warm themselves when it turns very cold. But getting warm has its risks, and some will never make it home. High on the mountain, hoofed mammals may lose only a few of their young to eagles but, once they descend below the “predator line,” these animals are fair game to great carnivores like bears, wolves, and human beings.
Hoofed mammals play a role in the survival of many who dwell in the lower forests. The First Nations people and others who live in The Great Bear Rainforest use the Sitka deer for food, and a meal of deer meat will fill a great carnivore’s belly, giving it warmth and nourishment to ride out the long, harsh winter.
Nevertheless, the promise of life-giving warmth and food still draws deer and mountain goats to the lower old-growth forests where they survive the winter by foraging on everything from the chewy wet seaweed washed onshore to bark moss and vegetation poking above the snowpack.
The fates of the people and animals who live in the Great Bear Rainforest are deeply entwined with the forest's health. In particular, old-growth forests are critical to the survival of Sitka deer and the other hoofed mammals that rely on them during the winter. Unsustainable forest practices, such as clear cutting, leave nothing for these animals to eat and starvation is a constant threat.
The Nature Conservancy is working with its partners to ensure that places like The Great Bear Rainforest remain healthy and forested. Sustainable forestry techniques not only ensure the health of these animals, but also the health of the region's economy.
When spring melts the snow and warms the air, most hoofed mammals leave the lowlands and climb the great slopes, returning home. There, high in the Great Bear Rainforest and free from many predators, the graceful Sitka deer and bearded mountain goats scamper nimbly along craggy mountainsides and bed down in highland meadows.
For several months, they'll recover here from the hardships and dangers of winter, raising their young and getting sleek and fat. And when winter returns, they'll descend once more to the old-growth forests to survive. There, whether they find the food they need depends greatly on the decisions we make today regarding conservation of the Great Bear Rainforest.March 01, 2011