Dance Me to the End of the Forest:
An Ecological Journey
The Wildebeests of Canada’s West Coast
Brilliant bursts of bioluminescence plunge past the wake of our boat. Schools of fleeing spawning salmon agitate the salty river estuary, and the chemical properties of unicellular photosynthetic algae called dinoflagellates. Multiple afterimages shadow each fish with shuttering surges of glowing green light that linger like pulsating memories in black water. A marvelously sublime spectacle of hypnotic proportions that enraptures me and vanquishes this chilly, dark, autumn night in Canada’s wild Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest.
I press my hands over my ears to muffle the drone of the outboard motor and gaze, captivated, at the dance of fish and ecological fire. It seems more a moment than a place, with as many interpretations as witnesses: poetic, erotic, spiritual, scientific. Why “dinos” produce light is also open to interpretation. One recent explanation, says Dr. Tom Reimchen, the scientist whose research brought me here, “is that the dinoflagellate is trying to attract fish which in turn eat zooplankton, which are the predators on the dinoflagellates”.
Tom is a new breed of holistic evolutionary geneticist, whose work focuses on relationships between species rather than on what drove them apart. He specializes in predator/prey interactions, and is here tonight equipped with night vision goggles to observe black bears catching spawning salmon, – because in the dark is when they catch most of their fish.
His last eight years of research has plunged him into the midst of discovering a link of astonishing magnitude between ocean nutrients and forest ecosystems: How fish feed the rainforest.
This work began at Bag Harbour in the Queen Charlotte Islands, where he investigated predators of spawning salmon, and is displayed on walls outside his office in the biology department at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. The introduction reads: “The yearly autumn return of salmon from the open Pacific Ocean to their natal streams comprises one of the major entry of marine nutrients into estuaries and coastal watersheds throughout the year, and is ecologically comparable to the great migrations of the wildebeest on the Serengeti Plains”. Reimchen makes this claim because both are cornerstone species of major importance in nutrient cycling, that largely determine the distribution and abundance of many top level predators and numerous associated species. Both are temporarily very abundant, spatially constrained, relatively easy to capture, and more or less predictable.
Tom estimates that seventy percent of a bear’s annual protein comes from salmon, and that during the fortyf-ive days of the spawn each black bear catches around 700 fish and leaves half of each carcass in the forest, – which amounts to the equivalent (at 2.2 kg per fish) of 120 kg of nitrogen fertilizer per hectare of land. British Columbia’s 80,000 to 120,000 bears could be transferring 60 million kilograms of salmon tissue into the rainforest, – a massive biomass contribution to the ecosystem, that accounts for half of the nitrogen fixed by some old growth trees.
With help from graduate student, Deanna Mathewson, 31, assistant Dan Klinka, 26, and veteran filmmaker and ecologist, Dr. Bristol Foster, Tom Reimchen’s field mission is simple: Observe bears at night, and collect tree cores and plant tissue samples during the day, in as many watersheds or “systems” as possible, – to confirm his Bag Harbour findings. The samples will be analyzed for nitrogen 15, a traceable isotopic marker found in the ocean at progressively higher levels of concentration with each successive trophic level. Salmon, as a fourth level consumer, has a distinctly high N15 signature, which allows Tom to determine the relative contribution of the marine-derived nitrogen to plants and trees. Hence Bristol’s nickname for Reimchen is “Isotope Tom”.
The legacy was born, at Bag Harbour, while sitting under giant trees, looking at half eaten carcasses strewn throughout the forest floor, when Tom realized that the abundance of carcasses and the abundance of the giant trees adjacent to the salmon river was probably not a coincidence. He reckoned that he could look at historical trends in salmon abundance by examining the yearly growth rings of trees. Salmon numbers entering Bag Harbour have ranged from 500 to 35,000 over the last fifty years. He knew that if there was such a relationship, one could not be sure that increased tree growth was due to high salmon numbers – if both tree growth and salmon abundance, for example, were correlated with rainfall. Then a colleague of Tom’s, Dr. Joseph Rasmussen at McGill University in Montreal, suggested that Tom look at nitrogen isotopes, because they exist at higher levels in salmon than in the air. However, a mass spectrometer capable of measuring minute quantities of N15 in wood, didn’t exist. It took four years of tests and false starts before Tom found a laboratory in Davis California, that could modify the combustion chamber in their equipment to allow trace amounts of N15 in wood to be measured. Tom got the technology he needed.
Each morning we wake-up before 7:00 a.m., have a quick breakfast, pull on our hip-waders and warm dry clothes retrieved from the hot, dark, and dirty “Dante’s inferno” engine room of our classic 65′ cruiser boat and mobile research base camp, the Blue Fjord, and climb into Tom’s faithful Zodiak. Tom sets the pace for everyone, which is relentless and predictable. He is stocky and tough, with wild red hair and deep blue penetrating eyes. And while he has been described as “looking like some sort of savage forest gnome”, he functions more like a precise and peaceful ecological warrior. He is passionately driven by his work, and fastidious about optimizing his six weeks in the field. When not eating, sleeping, wading up rivers, bushwhacking along creeks, coring trees or watching bears, he studies maps and historical fish statistics from computer databases, consults research papers, and determines the best daily destination.
Tonight Tom peers through his night-vision goggles to help him maneuver his three-decade-old Zodiak around rocks, deadfalls, barnacles, and up another estuary, like the Aatanhash, north of Khutze Inlet and Princess Royal Island. The marvel of agitated algae bioluminescencing fades as we travel up the river, out of the saltwater, into the rainforest. This area is home to one of the longest uninterrupted and intact conifer forests in the world. Unfortunately, it is also the target of clearcut logging – a practice that fragments rainforest and unravels ecosystems, and parallels drag-net fishing the ocean floors. In the daylight I see mountainsides shaved clear up to a horizontal line near the top, where timber gets too thin and uneconomical to cut and remove, – an ocular account of the forestry business bottom line.
After anchoring the Zodiak, we follow Tom up the bank and into the pitch-black forest. To avoid surprising any bears, Tom trudges along uttering low guttural sounds. His pace is steady and determined. He moves through dense willow stands and spiny devil’s club and muddy bogs with the stamina of a man half his 53 years. Then, at the edge of the creek we stop and wait quietly. Listen to the riffles of water against rock, and salmon splash, and watch through the night-vision goggles for bears to roam into view. I scan the forest on the opposite bank with the infrared beam (taped to the goggles) that Tom devised to clarify the grainy image, – especially in the rain or when there is little ambient light. “There is a bear downstream walking towards us”, someone whispers softly. I see a shadowy movement. The bear is perhaps seventy-five meters away. Above the sound of the shallow water I hear the bear’s footsteps splashing. It seems closer than it looks through the goggles. Its eyes glow with an intense silvery-green light reflected from the invisible beam. It lunges forward, crashes through the water, but is unsuccessful at catching a fish. The bear moves upstream, slowly, closer to us, fifteen meters away perhaps and takes another lunge. Again, no catch. Then, after four tries the bear succeeds. I hear the crunch of fish skull, and the bear disappears into the forest with a big chum salmon in its mouth. Black bears favour the bigger chum salmon over smaller pink salmon, and they eat pink in the stream, and usually carry chum salmon into the forest. At Bag Harbour, Tom predicted that bears would take larger and more valuable salmon further into the forest, where other bears and scavengers would be less likely to interfere. This led Tom deeper into the forest in search of carcasses. He found them, occasionally, up to 200 meters from streams. His prediction was correct and he speculates that parts of carcasses would be found even further into the forest, if he looked. “We need a new definition of riparian habitat (the forest zone influenced by the stream). It is much wider than ever imagined”, Tom says.
The bear returns in about 15 minutes and starts fishing again, by swatting and grabbing. Others, like some of the grizzly bears catching pink salmon at Knight Inlet, stand still in deeper water and rotate their submerged head from side to side. Some patiently wait and then just dive in, belly first. At Bag Harbour, Tom says, “black bears didn’t use the plunging method during the day, when they would wade in and snorkel, or search overhangs, and logs…and without any great motion, catch fish….Salmon are more quiescent at night and can easily be approached in the water…At night I can pick up a big chum salmon…as long as I don’t take them out of the water, or squeeze them too hard, they allow me to hold them”.
Sometimes, when a bear comes very close to us, within five or six meters, we start to talk to it. Bristol is very good at this. His soft quiet voice resonates with compassion and calm. – “It’s ok bear…We are just visiting…You have nothing to worry about…We are right here…only watching, bear…sorry if we disturbed you.” Once the bear is made aware of our presence, and we don’t make sudden movements, it takes its own secure space and slowly walks around us. I feel very safe here, with these people, and these bears who don’t meet many humans. “In another week we could probably be touching them”, comments Bristol, who is a modern-day Thoreau. He whistles with almost every bird he hears; ravens and wolves answer his calls. He points out a tiny Dipper bird that dives under the water to fetch salmon eggs, also exotic fungus, and we harvest huge golden clusters of “Chicken of the Woods” mushrooms for dinner on the Blue Fjord. On the bumper of his old truck is a sticker that reads: “Wild Fish Don’t Do Drugs”. It refers to the salmon farms that are opening in response to the decline and closure of wild salmon fisheries, and the inherent problems with caging and concentrating cultivated fish.
Some bears eat only parts of the fish, – they bite out the brain, or strip out just the eggs. Often I see nothing left of the fish except for a set of intact testicles draped over a rock or mossy log. Tom is not sure why. “The bear is showing the male salmon respect,” he jokes, then goes on to reveal that “testes are composed mainly of nucleic acids (DNA) and these are metabolically difficult to deal with as they may yield high levels of nitrogenous toxins when digested. In contrast, eggs are primarily yolk (oils)”. Often bears delicately skin and eat only the fattest parts of the fish, and leave the rest to the forest floor for numerous scavengers including: eagles, martens, ravens, crows, gulls, beetles, and fly larvae. After the fly eggs hatch, nothing else will touch the carcass,” Tom says, while fingering tiny fly eggs and maggots on a fish carcass at Klekane Inlet.
Tom has observed bears, night and day, for hundreds of hours, and inspected and weighed thousands of fish carcasses. In the Klekane, we find scores of fish remains strewn on the forest floor, and something that surprises Tom, – eight chum salmon, left in a group, only feet apart, with only their heads eaten. I’m leaning over a carcass photographing it when Tom arrives, and asks, “Did you move these here to photograph them?” Tom had never seen this kind of “caching” before. “This might even be the work of wolves”, he says of the discovery. Wolves have been filmed catching salmon, and even deer and squirrels have been observed feeding on dead carcasses. I watch him and Deanna work. They examine, weigh and measure each fish, – lower jaw length, body length, sex, weight of testes or number of eggs in body cavity and number of eggs on the ground, position of carcass and distance from stream, body condition, intactness of carcass, and presence or absence of brain.
“Black bears catch more males than female fish…Males are always darting around, fending off other males, and chasing females, while females are more likely to conceal themselves in the shadows, under a log…so they may be less of a target….Male fish are also in the stream longer than females, and the distinguishing hump on their back may be an advantage to the bear,” Tom explains. At Bag Harbour he found that about seventy percent of females were spawned-out at the time of capture, and the average male had spawned about six times prior to capture. Tom predictably suffers no fools, as evolution doesn’t favour shortsightedness, and he is quick to condemn government wildlife “management” strategies. He points to commercial fisheries and habitat loss through poor forestry practices for substantially reducing the number of salmon over the last 100 years, and despite a century of “research” on salmon, the destination of salmon nutrients in estuaries and watersheds has never been seriously investigated. In the past, Alaska had a bounty on eagles because they ate salmon. In British Columbia it was routine for “Creek Guardians”, hired by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to walk the streams, count fish, and shoot bears as part of their job. A practice that ended in the early 1970’s, but not before thousands of birds and other animals were killed because they were seen as costly competitors with people. Last year some 4400 hunters were permitted to kill 400 grizzly bears and 4,000 black bears in British Columbia. The actual number killed by poachers and others is as unknown as the ecological implications of the hunt. “Bears have a minor affect on running salmon, contrary to what conservation officials believe…The fish harvested by humans compared to every other predator is ecologically preposterous, and absolutely unsustainable…Few predators take more than ten percent of their prey population, – people take between 40%-75% of the salmon run”, Tom says, flatly, with anger in his eyes.
“But most disturbing are the young government biologists who are becoming pawns of the system rather than looking objectively at research….The Department of Fisheries and Oceans have a great data base, – it’s too bad that they don’t believe it”, he says pointedly. And he explains further how “People act as if they harvest the surplus, and are the only harvesters. They think that all the dead fish in the stream are wasted…But in ecosystems there is no surplus. Everything is used.” Not only do salmon replenish the forest but they also vitalize streams and estuaries with carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and micro-nutrients. Nearly fifty percent of the nutrients that juvenile salmon consume comes from dead parents. In the Bag Harbour estuary Tom went on an exploratory dive to detect and observe other predators on fish, and weigh decomposing carcasses, which has never been done before. While he was down there, he also learned that seals have difficulty catching fish where water is murky, and images distorted, where fresh and salt water meet.
I follow Tom for three weeks, starting at Bella Bella, in Heiltsuk First Nations territory, then through Kitasoo, Gitga’at, Lax Kwa’laams, and Haisla traditional territories, up numerous inlets, streams, creeks, valleys, and places including: Goin Creek, Salmon Bay, Packe Creek, Bernard Inlet, Cornwall Inlet East Creek, Aaltanhash, Khutze, Klekane, Kemano, Arnour, Chief Mathews Bay, Gimbbell, Kakoona and Princess Royal Island, where we spot the rare whitecolor phased black bear called the Kermodei or Spirit bear. There is also a 300,000 hectare Spirit Bear Conservancy Proposal to protect the biodiversity of this area, and prime timber valleys and inlets, from hundreds of kilometers of roads and some 200 more logging-clearcuts.
One evening Tom comments on research he proposed in the mid-1980’s when Gwaii Haanas Park, formerly called South Moresby Island, was being established. “I solicited a contract from Parks Canada because I realized that they had relatively limited knowledge or interest in conservation of marine eco-systems other than protecting them from offshore drilling….And when I discussed issues of marine conservation with them, they advised me that the word was ‘co-management’. They could see no problem with continued extraction of fish because they could see no damage to the biodiversity of the ecosystem of the area”. It is not surprising that an eleven-member Panel, on Ecological Integrity in Canada’s National Parks, recently concluded that every National park, except one in the Canadian arctic, is failing in its purpose….that “the pool of scientific talent in the parks system is very very thin on the ground”. The report sighted problems not only with the park management system, but also with what is going on just beyond their borders. Clear-cutting, for example, often extends right to the edge of National Parks, blatantly ignoring the fact that wildlife territory and habitat extends beyond those linear lines bounding parks. “If you’re going to manage an ecosystem, – you’ve got to have the knowledge”, says the report’s author Mr. Jacques Gerin, a former deputy minister of the Federal Environment Ministry.
British Columbia has twenty-five percent of all the coastal temperate rainforest in the world, and thirty-nine percent of it has already been logged. And while the government has committed 12% of forest to protected status by the year 2000 there is a major flaw in the plan. The critically low elevation forests, (the valleys, – where the best timber is, and where the salmon and bears are), are poorly represented in this twelve percent according to organizations like the Sierra Club and the David Suzuki Foundation and a litany of others. Yet, logging continues as usual in British Columbia even while the evidence accumulates and the scientific community, including critics like Dr. David Suzuki, point out “that the annual cut is twice the sustainable level”.
Along with the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Friends of Ecological Reserves, the David Suzuki Foundation is also supporting Dr. Tom Reimchen’s research, – as part of the foundation’s “Pacific Salmon Forests Project”, a project designed to conserve the biological and cultural diversity of British Columbia’s north coast. The forest, the bears, the salmon, and the communities here evolved together, and as David Suzuki has said, “They are one being”.
Each watershed is as unique as Tom is consistent with propelling himself into ecological processes fueled by predator-prey interactions. “All the systems are either logged, un-logged, or slated to be logged, and they may or may not have fish in them,” he says pointing to the big rocks in the mouth of Salmon River where, according to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, there were once 40,000 fish spawning. “Look at this mess, all this big broken rock left behind, sits here, in the mouth, and all the gravel that is good for spawning is now out in the bay, because of the clear-cut logging here forty years ago. That is why there are no salmon here anymore”, he says cynically. And now, due to depleted salmon stocks, bears are often shot wandering into small villages and towns, where they search for food before winter.
His abhorrence of ecological destruction, callous corporations, and military machines is only matched by his devotion to work, animals, and high ethical standards. A page from a magazine called “Free Inquiry” hangs on walls in his home and office, and it speaks loudly for Tom’s convictions. It reads in part: “If there is to be meaning in our lives, we must supply it ourselves, relying on our own powers, observations, and compassion. It is irrational and ultimately harmful to hang our hopes on gods, the supernatural, and the hidden, which arise out of imagination and wishful thinking”.
Tom was raised on a farm near Edmonton, Canada. He decided to improve his high school grades and enter university after a stint with heavy industry at the local Texaco petro-chemical plant. He discovered biology and evolution, and the stickleback fish at the University of Alberta. Then examined the ecological genetics of marines snails, during graduate studies at Liverpool University. Tom returned to the Queen Charlotte Islands where he turned a log cabin, three miles from the road in the bog, into a research station. For the next twenty years he studied predator-prey interactions at Drizzle Lake focusing on stickleback fish and it’s predators. He investigated differences in search, pursuit, and manipulation efficiencies among the 16 species of birds, 4 species of fish, diving beetles, dragonfly naiads, and fresh water otters that eat stickleback. He showed how natural selection has favored defenses against a puncturing predator like trout, a compression predator like the loon, and a grappling predator, such as dragonfly naiads. He reports that, “Up to 90% of attacks by predator fish, for example, are failures….that the prey retains a record of the attack…And that it is the frequent pursuit and handling failures of these predators that lead to the preservation of genetic variability within the prey population”. His interests in how bears catch salmon and why stickleback have six rather than seven protective plates, or why atlantic periwinkles are yellow rather than orange, are the same.
Day after day I watch Tom and Dan core old-growth cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees. They use two $1200 specialized drills to extract a 1/2″ cylindrical core of wood from deep inside the tree. Each tree, and the distance it is from the stream is measured, and coordinates are established at each site with a Global Positioning System. Each core is placed in individual plastic tubes and labelled. At every site Deanna collects live tissue from 10 species of plants, including: black huckleberry, red huckleberry, salal, false azalea, false lily of the valley, hemlock needles, devil’s club, and false buykave. “I find more huckleberries in salmon streams than non-salmon streams”, she says, when I ask if she can see any difference between the two kinds of systems. Tom concurs that in streams where there is no salmon, (his control samples at Beiu creek, for example, where a waterfall and steep banks guarantees that no fish could been taken into the forest), “the cedar trees are small, salal, false azalea, and deer fern are sparse, and the soil is exceptionally poor. I want to understand what proportion of these differences are due to the presence or absence of salmon, and perhaps the relative numbers of salmon that swam up each stream, – hundreds of years ago”.
The data from Bag Harbour showed that N15 could provide this historical signature. The significance of going into a watershed, coring a tree, penetrating hundreds of years of salmon and tree history, and reconstructing past ecosystems, is profound. First Nations elders as well as early European settlers speak of rivers which once had thousands of salmon but these disappeared or became rare in the last 100 years. Such stories are commonplace and are largely rejected by fishery biologists as exaggeration. In other cases, some rivers and streams today have no salmon and no one is around who remembers whether salmon existed there in the past. “Now, for the first time, we have a method of evaluating relatively easily the presence or absence of salmon in such rivers and perhaps their relative abundance”, Tom says. Provided, of course, that there are old growth trees to core.
His work inspires new insights into historical movements of salmon-dependent First Nation people. He is influencing other scientists, like Dr. Jonathan Moran also at the University of Victoria who studies soil nitrogen, – that could lead to satellite imaging of trees enriched with salmon nutrients, and maps showing vital arteries that link the natural world. Researchers who analyzed hair from grizzly bears that became extinct in Oregon’s Columbia River Valley in 1931 have shown that 90% of their diet came from salmon. Even grizzly bears 700-800 miles from the ocean had consumed salmon. Dr. Tom Reimchen’s work commands ecological respect: for the bears, and all the other consumers of salmon, as integral parts of an interlocking food web that merges land and ocean; and for wildlife and forestry management practices that are based on ecological integrity and economic sustainability. But mostly his work gives immense new meaning to the implications of declining salmon abundance on the long list of species that are dependent on them.
We will have to wait more than a year, however, for the analysis results of an astonishing number of samples. In six weeks, Tom and his crew collected 417 cores from 364 trees, and 3,000 tissue samples from 10 species of plants from riparian vegetation – from 55 watersheds, between Prince Rupert and Cape Caution between the northern end of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan Pan Handle.
In the mean time perhaps we should consider what conservationist David Brower suggested, – that the six days of Genesis could be considered as a framework for understanding the history of the earth. All day Monday until Tuesday noon, creation was busy getting the earth going. Life began at Tuesday noon and the beautiful organic wholeness of it developed over the next four days. At 4:00 P.M. Saturday the big reptiles came in. By the time the redwoods appeared five hours later there were no more reptiles. At three minutes before midnight on Saturday, humans appeared. At onefortieth of a second before midnight the Industrial Revolution began. As Brower says, we are surrounded by people who think that what we have been doing for that one fortieth of a second can go on indefinitely. “They are considered normal, but they are stark raving mad”, he concludes.
And perhaps we should listen more to the wisdom of Canada’s First Nations People whose cultures were based on fish and the forest. They know that forests are more than trees, and salmon more than just fish. To imagine the thoughts of people who changed places with the animals around them: Bear, Salmon, Eagle, Raven People. Nature is not a place to visit for them, it is home. And there dwell the insights and the blueprints to understanding eco-logical coexistence for generations to come. Every animal or plant that becomes extinct because of our presence is another notification that our relationship with our environment, our life support system, is a destructive one. And if we stay on the path we are on we will likely end up where we are going. In 1855, Chief Seattle asked, “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man.”