If chickens are out in the open or covered by weak netting, Northern Goshawks are likely to get a free and easy meal. But the endangered raptors tend to eat their prey in place, leaving them vulnerable to defensive chicken keepers. (Haida Gwaii Natural Resource District photo)

If chickens are out in the open or covered by weak netting, Northern Goshawks are likely to get a free and easy meal. But the endangered raptors tend to eat their prey in place, leaving them vulnerable to defensive chicken keepers. (Haida Gwaii Natural Resource District photo)

Haida Gwaii’s forest-dwelling hawk: One of the most endangered species on the planet

By Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Narwhal

A dense fog rolls in from the ocean on a cool, wet summer morning in Gaw Old Masset, a small village at the north end of the Haida Gwaii archipelago in B.C. In a gravel parking lot pockmarked by puddles, about a dozen field workers prepare for a day in the bush looking for one of the most endangered species on the planet, stads k’un, a subspecies of the northern goshawk.

Jonas Prevost wears a backwards ball cap over his thick curls and his unshaven face sports an infectious grin. In his mid-20s, he’s been working for the Council of the Haida Nation since he was 17.

“My náan (grandmother) lives just over there,” he says, pointing to a cluster of houses. “I just kept coming and asking them for a job until they said ‘yes.’”

Ever since, Prevost has worked on eradicating invasive species in protected areas; he’s even witnessed marbled murrelet chicks hatch from the vantage point of his sleeping bag on the forest floor.

Lately, he’s been working with a team to monitor the breeding activity of a unique subspecies of goshawk endemic to the islands off B.C.’s north coast. In 2018, researchers published a genetics study showing the Haida Gwaii birds are a distinct subspecies that have been isolated from their mainland cousins for about 20,000 years. There are only about 50 left, making stads k’un, Haida Gwaii’s national bird, one of the world’s rarest and most threatened species.

The biggest threat to stads k’un is industrial logging. The bird — about the size of a raven — lives primarily in old-growth forests, nesting in hemlock and spruce, and relies on a diet of small mammals and birds like grouse, sapsuckers and flickers. Mature forests provide a diversity of food sources and spaces to fly and perch below the canopy in search of prey. Stads k’un hunt by ambush, flying short distances and perching while searching for the critter destined to become a meal. The bird has been described as fearless, often crashing into the forest floor at high speeds and tumbling through the understory as it grapples with its prey.

Northern goshawks are red-listed in B.C., meaning they are close to vanishing, while the federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife designates the species, province-wide, as threatened. Recovery strategies were published in 2008 and the province developed a recovery implementation plan in 2018 for northern goshawks throughout the province.

But updating the status of stads k’un to reflect its genetic isolation is a slow process and, in the meantime, logging continues.

If the Haida Gwaii subspecies were listed as endangered federally, it would be possible to petition Ottawa under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, asking the federal government to protect stads k’un by stepping in and taking over activities — such as deciding whether or not to issue logging permits — that normally fall within provincial jurisdiction. Unlike six other provinces, B.C. does not have an endangered species act, so stads k’un is granted almost no protection under provincial legislation.

On the archipelago, under the Haida Gwaii Land Use Objectives Order, there is a 200-hectare reserve around any active nesting site to protect the breeding pair and its young. But finding a goshawk nest is notoriously difficult and there are no protections for crucial foraging habitat — totalling thousands of hectares — in areas slated for logging.

“We’re not protecting the bird, we’re protecting the nest,” Prevost says matter-of-factly.

In the tiny logging town of Port Clements, we pick up Xuuya k’aadjuu giis Teresa Russ and head down a small logging road on our way to visit a known nesting site in the Yaagun watershed. Russ is 20 years old and wears her long black hair tied in a tight ponytail. She grew up on the land and has been working in the forest since she was 13. Her voice is soft but quietly commanding.

After a brief tailgate safety meeting while we munch on salmon jerky, we head into the forest. Russ and Prevost kibitz as we clamber over — and sometimes under — massive trees that have fallen due to natural causes, slowly making our way into the birds’ territory. Prevost checks his iPad for the location of the nest, calls out a compass bearing and then wanders off in a random direction. Russ pulls out her compass, checks the bearing and calls after him.

“Did you even check your compass?” she asks, laughing. With a mischievous grin, he responds that he’s following his intuition, and continues up the hillside.

The area was protected for cultural reasons before the nest was discovered — everywhere around us is evidence that Haida have been using this forest for thousands of years. We pause at one tree, a towering ts’uu (cedar) with a deep hole cut in its trunk about four metres off the ground. Russ explains that cedar rots from the inside, so Haida traditionally cut a test hole to assess the core wood before felling a tree for a pole, canoe or another purpose. If the core showed signs of rot, the tree would be left standing to grow for hundreds of years, providing habitat for stads k’un and many other species.

Other trees have long tapered sections of exposed wood: evidence of bark-stripping. Cedar bark is used for a multitude of purposes, including basketry and clothing. Russ is known for her woven cedar bark roses, which she leaves in all the work trucks. (Prevost admits he once gave one to his náan to get out of trouble.)

None of the Haida’s traditional forest-use imperilled stads k’un populations. That’s partly why we’re here to see this particular site; it proves humans can coexist with this bird, it just requires a light touch. Haida logged trees and benefited from forest resources for millenia, maintaining a balance between extraction and preservation that supported the area’s rich biodiversity. The problem isn’t logging — it’s how we log, and how much.

We’re standing on a ridge when we first hear a stads k’un sounding its alarm call. The nest is in a tree, below to our left, and the bird is somewhere to our right. Prevost laughs quietly, relieved to find it alive and thriving, and says you can tell it’s a juvenile because its voice cracks, just like that of a boy entering puberty. He and Russ point out the nest. Even looking right at it through binoculars, I can barely tell it’s anything more than a natural tangle of branches.

Last fall, B.C.’s chief forester, Diane Nicholls, set Haida Gwaii’s total annual allowable cut at 776,000 cubic metres. Because roughly half of the archipelago is protected in parks and conservancies, the entire cut will come from concentrated pockets on the landscape, most from habitat that could, or already does, support stads k’un.

While Nicholls acknowledged the need to protect the bird’s foraging habitat, she pointed out the species’ recovery plan “does not provide any direction, citing the need for more research.” Until that research is completed and incorporated into the plan, only the nests will be protected — and only if they can be found.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development says nests are the best indicators that stads k’un occupy a territory.

“Goshawks build alternative nests, so locating active nests provides the best evidence of breeding and provides certainty sites will contribute to long-term population objectives,” the ministry tells The Narwhal in an email.

But biologist Frank Doyle, an expert on B.C. goshawks who has spent decades studying the bird and collaborating with the Haida Nation and provincial and federal governments, says that’s an oversimplified view. Goshawks will leave a nest unused for years while still using their territory, he explains. In other words, an empty nest doesn’t mean the birds are gone; Doyle says he recently visited a nest in the Yukon he found in 1992.

“It’s still there: same tree, same nest,” he laughs. It’s an important point; when the birds find suitable habitat, they can stay for generations.

Doyle was one of the authors of the genetics study and has been involved for many years in gathering scientific data to support goshawk recovery efforts. He says the science is solid; the birds need mature forests for both breeding and foraging. Breeding territories are smaller, by necessity. The birds stay close to the nest when they have babies to feed and protect. After juveniles strike out on their own, the home territories of each respective bird, including the male whose territory surrounds the nest, grow much larger. The situation on Haida Gwaii is unique, both in terms of stads k’un itself and its remaining habitat. Continuing to delay decisions on the grounds that more research is needed is playing with fire, Doyle says.

“If you get it wrong at all, then you can lose them all on Haida Gwaii.”

According to Husby Forest Products maps, there are four goshawk reserves at St’alaa Kun (Collison Point), one of the areas where the Lower Mainland-based logging company operates on Haida Gwaii. But the reserves are surrounded by landscapes fragmented by clearcuts, many more of which are proposed in the same areas. Field workers with the Council of the Haida Nation have seen an adult female using the forest in one proposed cut block — Collison 787 — but they’ve yet to find her nest.

Gerry Morigeau, a field contractor who has been closely involved with the monitoring and recovery efforts since the work started in the mid-1990s, has surveyed the area extensively.

“What worries me about places like Collison 787 is you have a female in the stand exhibiting breeding behaviour, who may or may not have been breeding, but we never found a nest,” he says, at his home north of Port Clements. “By not backing off and taking a precautionary principle and giving her the time and space to breed, and putting in cutblocks right adjacent to where she was trying to nest, you’re jeopardizing the possibility of her successfully breeding.”

Morigeau’s partner, Kiku Dhanwant, has played a leadership role in stads k’un studies and conservation efforts since the 1990s. She describes the landscape at St’alaa Kun as having “islands within islands” of habitat, with the best and most productive concentrated along the creeks and rivers.

“Because of how threatened the goshawk is — I should say endangered, even though it’s not listed that way — we absolutely have to be managing some predicted areas,” she says, noting there is sufficient science to pinpoint likely habitat. The key, she explains, is prey diversity. Where there’s prey, there’s a chance the birds can survive and reproduce.

“Industry don’t want us to have these birds on the land, not because they’re not an important species, but just because of how much area gets protected and set aside,” Prevost says.

While every stand of old-growth is different and includes several tree species, it is possible to come up with a conservative estimate of monetary value. One hectare can yield more than 1,500 cubic metres of marketable wood, which means 200 hectares of old-growth cedar could be worth close to $189 million, based on B.C.’s average old-growth prices for spring 2021. In other words, logging companies stand to lose a considerable amount of money each time a nest is found — and even more if goshawk foraging habitat is also set aside.

Morigeau says he’s concerned that provincial and federal recovery plans have been in place for more than a decade, yet the bird’s population is still declining and companies like Husby are still clearcutting. Husby Forest Products did not respond to interview requests.

“You don’t recover as an alcoholic while drinking a six-pack,” he says, questioning the efficacy of existing recovery plans. “All we’ve been doing is surveying for nests and monitoring.”

When critical habitat is clearcut or fragmented, stads k’un is left with fewer options to find a variety of prey and will eventually leave the area. The birds avoid hard forest edges, whether natural or from logging, which means the impacts of industrial activity — such as a clearcut, logging roads or blowdown on the edges of clearcuts — extend into the forest left standing.

One significant problem, Doyle says, is that no-one knows how much is too much. Every home territory is different, he explains. While there is a tipping point, past which the bird can’t sustain itself and breed, there’s no magic number decision-makers can use to limit logging in known or suspected habitat.

“Any block, potentially, would be the one that pushes you past that threshold,” he says. Greater accuracy can be obtained by figuring out how much selective logging can take place in goshawk habitat elsewhere in the province, leaving some territories intact and harvesting in others and monitoring the results, but it’s not worth the risk on Haida Gwaii, he says.

“Don’t pretend we’re God and we can get it right straight off the bat, especially if it’s Haida Gwaii,” he says. “I wouldn’t go mess with any of those … remaining territories.”

Morigeau says about 30 nest territories have been discovered to date. Four were confirmed active this year. If B.C. followed Alaska’s rules, which are set by the toothy U.S. Endangered Species Act, the evidence of bird sightings and prey remains found at St’alaa Kun would be sufficient to trigger protection, he says.

“We’ve been steering the ship towards the cliff for long enough,” Morigeau says. “We have to start changing the way we think about things, the way we define things, the way we talk about these things, or we’re going to be stuck in this patriarchal, colonial mindset that we are in charge of nature — that’s bullshit.”

He shows me an image of a juvenile goshawk he photographed on his forested property a few years ago, explaining that the opportunistic bird preys on domestic chickens.

“It’s like they look down and see a bunch of grouse, but dumber,” he chuckles. The bird’s agility in the forest means it can find its way in and out of small holes in fencing, at top speed. With so few remaining birds, each one is critically important; Dhanwant recently worked on an education campaign aimed at preventing conflicts between the birds and chicken-owning humans.

Dhanwant says she’s happy to see young Haida like Prevost and Russ stepping up to support the work.

“It has to be a Haida Gwaii-based solution,” she says. “Managing for goshawks is maintaining the land.”

The juvenile, about 25 metres away in a riparian opening in the forest, keeps sounding its alarm call. Suddenly, we spot it. Stads k’un translates to “wings brushing boughs” and the bird lives up to its Haida name. Its wings whack against branches as it moves from one perch to another, in and out of view, a noisy ghost.

It’s big for a juvenile and Prevost says that likely means it’s a female, because males are smaller. The size difference between the sexes allows the breeding pair to hunt a diversity of food sources within a territory, with the female selecting larger prey and the male targeting smaller species, he explains.

We don’t want to harass the stressed-out bird, so we move away and cross a gully until we’re under the nest, where Prevost and Russ look for signs the site is still being used and the bird is getting plenty of food. Russ starts gathering pellets — the indigestible, regurgitated remains of prey — to send away for lab analysis. Prevost quips about having a job picking up bird puke.

Both are excited about their discoveries. They pull out tiny sapsucker feathers from the pellets and pick up the bones of a small mammal. Prevost says he once absentmindedly reassembled the skeleton of a mouse, extracted from a pellet, before realizing what he was doing was gross.

He gestures around us, explaining why this is prime habitat for the bird.

“We have a lot of cedar here but there’s also a very significant portion of hemlock that are large-diameter,” he says. “They’ve got the nesting platforms, which are going to be those kinds of heavier branches that will support a nest. It could be on a single branch, typically close to the trunk of the tree, about the size of a basketball, maybe a little bit larger.”

Russ says she was here when the nest was discovered — her first.

“Kiku [Dhanwant] really wanted to have a few younger people out, just to kind of do a little bit of training as we found it and to make sure that we know what we’re looking for as we get closer to a nest,” she recalls. “We’re walking the gully down there and Kiku pretty much said, ‘I just have a feeling, this is really good habitat, I think we’re going to find the nest soon.’ ”

The connection between the bird and habitat is at the heart of the goshawk’s decline, they say. Males build the nests. Part of what makes a male desirable to a female is prey availability. Without healthy habitat, there’s no prey, and without prey, the female birds will give males the cold-shoulder.

Russ says she and Dhanwant recently discovered a new nest occupied by two healthy juveniles learning to fly and hunt. Juveniles face a 75 per cent mortality rate, so finding two is a rare and hopeful sign.

“They were hunting probably 100 metres down from us,” she says, her voice quiet but her excitement clear. “You’d see the adult coming — it’d fly super low through the canopy — and the juveniles would start begging really loud.”

She says the nest was in a similar habitat to the one we’re in: tall trees with lots of open space below a high canopy, an abundance of songbirds and plenty of snags for “plucking posts,” where adult birds remove primary feathers from prey before feeding their young.

“As we were walking up to it, we were mentioning there are so many songbirds and stuff around, flickers and sapsuckers and stuff like that,” she says. “And we’re just like, yeah, it seems like a really good area to find one — and then it was just right there.”

Finding a nest so quickly is rare. More often than not, the young Haida spend long days trudging through the bush in the rain, finding nothing — or at least not enough to trigger provincial protections.

Preserving stads k’un habitat could be simpler if the province had standalone endangered species legislation. During the 2017 provincial election campaign, the NDP government promised to enact a law, but then quietly reneged on its pledge even though it was included in Environment Minister George Heyman’s first mandate letter from Premier John Horgan.

Chris Johnson is a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Northern British Columbia and a member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife. He says watching the NDP’s commitment fall by the wayside was disappointing.

“It’s just fallen completely off the government’s radar, even though it was part of the original mandate letter for the minister of the environment,” he says. “It got buried and lots of effort, lots of resources were put into this.”

The federal Species at Risk Act “is very inefficient when it comes to actual speedy action for species that are declining,” Johnson explains.

For example, the federal recovery strategy recommends “addressing the management of northern goshawk at a landscape or watershed level to ensure that suitable breeding, foraging and wintering habitats exist throughout the landscape.”

Ross Vennesland, a senior biologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, is the federal lead on the recovery of the species.

“Federally, we felt the science was there,” he says on defining habitat needs. “There’s uncertainty, of course, but given the threats to habitat and the needs of the birds, especially thinking about Haida Gwaii, that’s why we identified foraging habitat as well as breeding habitat.”

But federal protections apply almost exclusively to federal lands. On Haida Gwaii, most federal lands are already protected through designations such as the Gwaii Hanaas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.

“Because the provinces have jurisdiction over most of the land base, the onus is on them to act first,” Vennesland says. “At this point, we’re waiting to see how the province develops their program.”

Neither the provincial Ministry of Environment nor the Ministry of Forests made scientists available for an interview.

“If we had a provincial endangered species law or act and it was automatic listing and automatic protections for critical habitat, then you could see a situation where recovery would be quicker for those goshawks,” Johnson says.

While the federal legislation has limitations, action would accelerate if the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife accepted the science and designated stads k’un a subspecies at high risk of extinction, Vennesland says. The committee is currently reviewing stads k’un, but the process for assessing and listing species as endangered is notoriously slow.

“That would change everybody’s perspective on how to approach this,” he says. “The federal government would work with the Haida Nation and the province to try and make sure something solid would move forward as quickly as possible.”

There are also provisions under the federal act that allow for intervention if a province or territory is not doing enough to protect a listed species, he notes. But conservation ecologist and University of British Columbia professor Karen Hodges says they are rarely used.

“The lived experience of this law is that [the federal agency] has been immensely reluctant to invoke the safety net,” she says.

Hodges is one of a number of scientists who, for years, have been advocating for a provincial species-at-risk law. Both she and Johnson caution that the level and nature of protection would depend on what is included in such a law. Hodges makes a case for legislation that would employ a habitat version of hospital triage.

“If a species meets these criteria, then bing, bing, bing, immediately these prohibitions are going to go into place,” she explains, comparing the situation to a patient arriving in an emergency room: stabilize first, then assess and diagnose. “Then, as we go through the process of [defining] critical habitat — and maybe there’s a critical study that needs to happen, or more surveys, to get a better estimate of the population and what have you — then you can say, ‘Okay, we’re putting in this emergency injunction but then we will update that once we have the critical information that would allow us to relax some of that protection.’ ”

Morigeau warns there’s another problem on the horizon. When second-growth matures, forests can once again support stads k’un but, as the federal recovery strategy puts it, “As soon as forests become structurally mature and suitable for [stads k’un], they also become economically viable for timber harvesting.”

Haida Gwaii has some healthy stands of second-growth, but on-going public pressure to stop logging old-growth means those stands are poised to become a highly sought-after source of revenue.

Dhanwant says we need to start thinking about ways to help second-growth forests become viable territories for stads k’un, and that doesn’t preclude logging.

“We can be logging in a way that is helping to develop that structure,” she says. Thinning stands to encourage growth and create sufficient spacing could help ensure the birds have a chance of survival.

“Having goshawks nest in places where they couldn’t before because of your efforts — that’s a recovery,” Morigeau says.

Vennesland says the Haida commitment to protect the species gives him hope sufficient action will be taken to protect stads k’un.

“The Haida Nation makes me feel really confident about the situation because although the conservancies don’t necessarily cover foraging habitat explicitly, the Haida Nation in our consultation meetings were highly supportive of [protecting] critical habitat. I would expect that they would push hard for extra protection for goshawk.”

Prevost excuses himself and wanders off into the bush, compass dangling from his cruise vest (not that he ever takes a reading, laughs Russ) and we sit and talk and listen to the sounds of the forest. The colours are vivid. Hues of green look like someone turned up the saturation filter on a photo. I’m lying on a bed of sphagnum moss more comfortable than a feather mattress. Everything is wet and the calls of songbirds trill through the trees.

Russ says little is known about the connection between stads k’un and Haida crests. When smallpox was brought to the islands, the Haida population was nearly wiped out. As Haida matriarch Kii’iljuus Barb Wilson wrote, “Smallpox running through our people can be likened to a fire burning a library of 30,000 books. When you think of the knowledge that was contained in 30,000 people and then we were decimated to less than 600, the fact that we can function as a people is truly amazing.”

Russ, whose interests include traditional tattooing, Haida art and family crests, says there are hawks carved on Haida poles. Morigeau later points me to a blue hawk transformation mask held by the Canadian Museum of History, potentially a stads k’un, which has blue-grey feathers.

“We know that they’re important, especially for our culture, but we don’t actually know the whole story of it — that information was lost,” Russ says. “But at least if we do our part in making sure that these birds are on the land base, who knows, one day that information could come back.”

The juvenile is quiet and when Prevost comes back, he says it’s taking a chini nap. Chini means grandpa. After feeding, it needed a midday snooze.

We decide to leave the bird to its nap. On our way back to the road we find a felling boundary, marking the edge of planned logging, before the area was protected under cultural heritage regulations. The line of pink flags in the trees is a stone’s throw from the nest and we gaze at the massive cedars and hemlocks and lush understory.

“They would’ve clearcut all this,” Russ says.

Despite the beauty around us, the forest looks nothing like its former self, before colonizers brought invasive species to the islands.

“We wouldn’t have been able to see each other in here,” Prevost says, just a few feet away.

Black-tailed deer, a species introduced in 1878, have decimated the understory of the forest, imperilling several endemic species and triggering a chain effect that now also threatens stads k’un.

Prevost calls the small deer “the most delicious invasive species I have to deal with.” Like many islanders, he regularly hunts deer and prepares the meat before giving it to Elders and other community members.

The problem is so bad in places that deer are showing up on beaches, licking salt from rocks and eating kelp.

“The deer that you see at the beach have eaten everything within their little 100-hectare territories,” Prevost says. “Now that they’re going down and eating kelp means there’s nothing left in the forest.”

Russ says recent colourization of early contact photos show a diversity of plants that doesn’t exist anymore, except on a few islands where the Haida have partnered with Parks Canada on a project called Llgaay gwii sdiihlda, restoring balance.

We munch on ripe huckleberries, tart and sweet; Russ says the few bushes we’ve found somehow avoided being snipped off by deer when they were just a few inches tall. While none of us would enjoy hiking through the towering salal and devil’s club that characterized Haida Gwaii’s forests before colonization, the ecological implications of the changed forest are chilling.

In the truck, Prevost can’t stop talking about the imminent birth of his first child. With warm belly laughs as he navigates around ruts and potholes on the road, he says he hopes it will be a big 10-pound roly-poly Haida baby, a prospect his partner is not so keen on.

Russ talks about her brother, who passed. She says she wants to get a raven tattoo on her back because that’s her brother’s crest. She talks about skinning deer and about going away to university in the fall, where she plans to study natural resource protection.

However uncertain it may be, the future of stads k’un is in good hands.

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