Close to 600 people crammed into the Prince George Civic Centre Tuesday evening to learn about, and give feedback on, the government’s plan to conserve southern mountain caribou populations.
Concerns about the proposed plan, such a limits to recreational and industrial opportunities in the area in question … roughly between Mackenzie, Chetwynd, and Tumbler Ridge … were aired at the meeting. And while staff from the provincial and federal governments and the Salteau and West Moberly First Nations answered questions, it’s unlikely they allayed too many concerns.
“It does not include backcountry closures,” said Celine Davis, Manager, Science and Adaptation for Watershed Science and Adaptation for the Environment Ministry. “It’s a process to build an approach to really develop what we’re going to be doing for the different herds.”
Two draft agreements have been developed under section 11 of the federal Species at Risk Act. A draft section 11 agreement between British Columbia and Canada sets a framework for co-operation between the two governments to recover southern mountain caribou.
A draft partnership agreement between B.C., Canada, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations proposes specific habitat protection and restoration measures to recover the central group herds of southern mountain caribou.
While backcountry closures are not on the books, restrictions, such as snowmobiles and heli-skiing, likely will be, said David Muter, Executive Director for Trades Training, Strategic Planning Engagement for the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training.
The plan does call for an interim moratorium on new industrial and commercial development in some areas, until a long term plan is developed and a moratorium on some other areas until a designated protected area is developed.
“Caribou are designated as ‘at risk’ under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA),” said Muter. “We know that this is because of multiple different factors.”
Caribou, he said, require large amounts of contiguous habitat, are vulnerable to predators, are sensitive to human disturbances, and they have significant value to First Nations. The program, he said, is a made-in-B.C. approach. Under SARA, once a species is determined as being ‘at risk’ the federal environment minister is compelled to issue an order to help save the species.
“The main goal is to recover caribou populations, provide certainty to natural resource users, and advance reconciliation to First Nations communities,” he said.
Muter said the central mountain caribou herd has been in decline for close to 20 years, from 800 animals in 2000 to about 200 in 2016. The Burnt Pine herd was recently extirpated. The reasons why the herds are in decline and how to save them are as diverse as the terrain they wander over.
“It’s not a simple story,” said Muter. “It’s not just one thing. If it was just one thing, it would be an easy problem for us to solve, but it’s a complex dynamic.”
He said there are a series of disturbances on the land base that remove caribou habitat, such as lichen on old growth trees. Those disturbances on the land base create other habitat that attracts moose and deer.
“Harvesting activities, climate change, forest fires create those younger forests that are advantageous for moose and deer,” he said. “With that increase in those populations, that increases wolf and other predator populations.”
The combination of reduced habitat and easier access by more predators spells disaster for the caribou.
He said that while there are many factors resulting in caribou mortality, wolves account for more deaths than anything else.
Government has undertaken wolf culls over the past five years with close to 500 wolves killed over that time. While wolf culls help, it’s not the only answer, said Muter.
Concern has been raised over why the federal and provincial governments negotiated deals with the Salteau and West Moberly First Nations before presenting plans to the public
Russ Lamoche, Timber Sales Manager for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resources, the West Moberly and Salteau have shown leadership in dealing with the caribou.
“The key components of the partnership agreement is high elevation habitat protection, some additional protected areas, establishment of a caribou recovery committee, and establishment of recovery objectives,” he said.
There are two interim moratorium areas.
“Critical habitat for caribou survival is high elevation, a lot of it is high alpine tundra,” he said. “One of the key commitments of the agreement is this interim moratorium on activities in there,” he said.
Another ingredient is the expansion of the Klinse Za park, as well as an expansion and recovery area in the Mackenzie Timber Supply Area and into Tree Farm Licence 48.
“What the agreement speaks to establishment of land use objectives in the areas, and these would be beneficial to caribou but would also allow activities to take place,” he said. “For activity to take place in those areas, they would have to be consistent with those land objectives.”
He stressed Davis’ point about the backcountry.
“Nothing in this agreement says that we’re going to close the backcountry,” he said. “The only piece in this agreement that speaks to any restriction is an engagement plan for winter recreation, specifically snowmobiles.”
That, however, will involve meetings with snowmobile groups.
Jim Kerr, representing the Salteau and West Moberly First Nations, said using pens to protect caribou calves from predators has resulted in one herd’s numbers going from 16 to 81. He added the West Moberly and Salteau stopped hunting caribou in the early 1970s.
Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier says he will present a 30,000-signature petition to the provincial government calling on the province to “halt closure of the backcountry for caribou preservation, until proper consultations take place on the matter.”
Tuesday’s session was the sixth public meeting throughout the North on the province’s caribou recovery plan with another session set for tonight in Mackenzie and Thursday night in Quesnel. Feeback from the sessions will form part of the proposal which will be presented to Victoria before any decision is made.
Listen to the question and answer session from last night’s meeting