The Heli-Ski Blog

CMH Heliskiing and Mountain Caribou

Posted by Topher Donahue on Jun 23, 2011 8:07:00 AM

A recent article in Conservation Northwest titled “Heli-skiing and mountain caribou” - while well-intended in it’s attempt to raise people’s awareness of the plight of the mountain caribou - is a sad example of the dangerous misunderstandings between conservation groups, recreationalists, and land managers.   

cariboo lodge   heliski terrain
The article begins with: “What recreational pursuit costs $2,300 per day, generates nearly 600 times the CO2 on a per/km basis as a Hummer, is subsidized by taxpayers, and scares the heck out of wildlife? No, it's not a recreational space flight or a flight to Antarctica… It's heli-skiing with Canadian Mountain Holidays!"

The article is a full frontal assault on heliskiing, with CMH Heliskiing as the scapegoat, but the good news is that it provided a perfect forum for Dave Butler, biologist and CMH’s Director of Sustainability, to explain how CMH not only avoids the endangered animals entirely, but also assists with the mountain caribou conservation efforts in the areas where CMH operates.  One sentence of Dave’s response says it all, “scientists who have taken the time to understand both caribou and heli-skiing have recommended the approaches we are taking.”

Many CMH heliskiers can tell the same story of ski guides explaining how they monitor snowpack, avalanche areas, caribou and wildlife locations on a computer system called Snowbase, and how the guides view wildlife avoidance with the same seriousness as avalanche avoidance. 

Dave’s response is posted here in clarification of what really goes on out there:

June 20, 2011
Conservation Northwest 1208 Bay Street, #201 Bellingham, Washington 98225
Attn:    Mitch Friedman Executive Director
Dear Mr. Friedman,
It has recently been brought to our attention that our company is specifically referenced on your organization’s web-site. We reviewed the site, and quite frankly, are surprised and disappointed.
There are a number of key items which are worthy of comment:

  • It is ironic and disappointing that you’ve focused on CMH when in fact we are the company that has been leading the helicopter and snow-cat skiing sector for many years in addressing the needs of mountain caribou (and other key species). We are the only company which has been directly involved in recovery efforts since the early days of those efforts, and the only company with a staff biologist/forester to help us focus on these efforts. Perhaps you’ve chosen us because we’re the largest, or because we’ve taken the time to actually get involved. But you’ve chosen to “pick on” the company which is pushing the hardest for dealing positively and effectively with this important issue, while some others in our sector and in other sectors (such as commercial snowmobile tours) are not involved at all.
  • As background, CMH was founded nearly 50 years ago on the concept of stewardship. This equates to stewardship of our guests (through service and safety) but just as importantly, it means stewardship of the special places where we operate, and it means stewardship of the communities where we live, work and play. Those aren’t just words; we show people what we mean, every day and every year, through our actions.
  • While it’s true that some scientists who don’t specialize in the interactions between caribou and heli-skiing have suggested some habitat closures, it is also true that other scientists who have taken the time to understand both caribou and heli-skiing have recommended the approaches we are taking and are working with us to ensure those are constantly improved. They understand that a static solution such as closures makes little scientific sense when dealing with two very dynamic systems (the movement of both caribou and heli-skiers across the landscape).
  • We’ve worked very hard with biologists from our provincial Ministry of Environment and consulting wildlife biologists over many years to develop a range of practices, procedures and protocols to ensure that caribou (and other key wildlife species) are not displaced by our activities. These are constantly evolving, and your Joe Scott is well aware of these through his involvement in the provincial caribou recovery efforts. One of the things we at CMH have been actively promoting is the concept of a third party audit team which would monitor not only the implementation of the required procedures, but their efficacy. We hope that one or more representatives from the conservation community will play a role in such a team.
  • While some may not want to believe it, the introduction and evolution of these practices has had a very dramatic effect on our business. I’m sure that’s the same for other heli- and snow-cat skiing businesses which are operating in a manner that is consistent with these practices. For example, we close ski terrain (and do not use it) if/when caribou are in the area and if they could be displaced by our presence. “Wildlife alerts” are placed on a larger number of runs where the relative potential for overlap with caribou is relatively higher than other runs. In these locations, our guides and pilots can only go there if animal absence is confirmed prior to doing so. This past winter, 44% of our run-days across the company (total # ski runs X total # days in operation) were affected by either wildlife closures or wildlife alerts. In 2009/10, 55.7% of our run-days were affected.

There are a number of factual errors on your web-site which do require a response. While they may simply be there for dramatic effect, we appreciate that you focus on science-based solutions (which we assume means using fact as opposed to opinion or purposeful misinformation):

  1. Your reference to the costs of our program, while irrelevant to the issue of mountain caribou, is inaccurate.
  2. I can’t speak to the CO2 emissions of a Hummer, or how that compares to our business. It’s a very strange attempt at a comparison. But I can tell you that we are the first (and to our knowledge only) heli-ski company to publish a regular public sustainability report. We’ve won provincial, national and international awards for our work. Among other things, the most recent report includes a break-down of our corporate GHG foot-print and our approaches to that issue. I don’t know of any other tourism company in BC that is doing that.
  3. You suggest that our activity is “subsidized by tax-payers.” This is simply untrue.
  4. You mention footage of animals running from aircraft. You should be aware that our own company protocols (and those developed by government) do not allow us to get that close to caribou; staff can be fired if they allow this to happen. And we do not undertake any form of purposeful over-flights or flight- seeing. So, if this is going on, it is not our guides or pilots involved. As an example, a writer/photographer from a prestigious natural history magazine recently asked us to fly near caribou so that they could get photographs. We refused to do this and suggested they get their images from the local highway, where animals can commonly be seen in the spring. We practice what we preach.
  5. Your final paragraph infers that we don’t care about caribou and we‘re not helping to protect the species. That is also not true.

Clearly, Mitch, you get to choose what appears on your web-site. We understand campaigns and how they work. What we ask of you is that you take the time to understand what it is we’re actually doing before taking us to task. We’re open to that. As a company, and as individuals, we take great pride in doing the right thing, leading the way and showing people what we do. Our track record on many fronts proves that this is not a meaningless facade; it is the way we do business.
Please accept this as our personal invitation to visit us so that you can learn what we’re actually doing. We understand this may not change your mind or approach, but it will allow you to proceed based on facts. Thanks for the opportunity to hear our concerns. I would be pleased to talk with you in person.
Dave Butler, RPF, RPBio.
Director of Sustainability

Photo of CMH Cariboos Lodge - one of the places we hope Mr. Friedman will visit to see what Canadian Mountain Holidays is really doing out there.  More information on the issues facing the mountain caribou can be found here.

Topics: Sustainability, CMH Experts, heli-skiing