'No easy solution': Governments pitch caribou plan to skeptical public

FORT ST. JOHN - A wolf cull and a maternity penning program has led to increased birth rates, plummeting death rates, and rising herd populations of southern mountain caribou in the B.C. South Peace. But more needs to be done to fully help stabilize their numbers, including restrictions on industrial development, government officials said at a town hall Tuesday.

Officials with both the B.C. and federal governments were in Fort St. John to give the public an overview of two draft agreements to protect vast tracts of caribou habitat, continue the wolf kill, and grow and fund the successful maternity penning program in the region.

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A  meeting is also planned for Prince George on Tues., April 9 at the Civic Centre, 5:30 p.m. start.

"We got here through the way that we've managed the landscape, and we're reaping the rewards of that management on caribou," said Darcy Peel, in charge of the province's caribou recovery program.

"There is no easy solution here. That's the key we want to get out to people, to understand there's no solution to caribou recovery that you just flick this switch and everything will be good. This requires a lot of action at the front end, and ongoing commitment to recover caribou in order to keep them on the landscape."

Caribou numbers in the central group of the southern mountain caribou have dropped from between 800 to 1,000 in the 1990s, to around 230 today -- a precipitous decline, biologist Dale Seip said. While a few herds in the region have already been extirpated, the entire population likely would have been by 2020 without predator control and maternal penning, he said.

"We've been studying these caribou since 2002," Seip said, noting a radio collar program has been tracking herd movements, calving and mortality rates, and population counts.

The wolf cull has killed 476 wolves since the winter of 2014-15, Seip said. That's helped drop caribou mortality rates from 14 per cent to five per cent, increased calving rates from 16 per 100 animals to 25, and a 20 per cent increase in herd populations. That's been buoyed by a successful maternity pen run by West Moberly and Saulteau, capturing pregnant caribou cows each March, and penning them through to late July to let the calves grow in a safe environment and giving them a better chance to survive.

However, fragmented habitat conditions and growing moose populations are seeing wolf numbers bounce back each year, Seip said. "Wolf control works, but it comes with a lot of effort and it needs to be ongoing," he said.

Seasonal caribou and wolf habitat generally don't overlap -- caribou use the rugged interior and high elevations of the mountains in the summer as their calving range, and move out to the alpine edges of the mountains and onto plateaus as they search for food in winter. Wolves live exclusively in the valley bottoms during the winter, sustained largely by moose.

"Caribou are relatively safe as long as a high elevation refuge is in place," Seip said.

But industrial landscape changes over the decades have flipped the tables, Seip said, making it easier for wolves to climb up into the alpine via roads and corridors in the summer, and leading to more caribou deaths -- around 40% of total caribou mortality each year. As industrial activity continues, it replaces old mature forest well-suited for caribou, with young forest well-suited for moose, deer, and elk, increasing those ungulate populations, as well as wolves.

"We've disrupted this natural predator-prey system by having industrial disturbance on the landscape," Seip said.

Which is a key plank of a draft partnership agreement between B.C., Ottawa, and the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations.

Resource restrictions

The agreement calls for the establishment of seven zones around Chetwnd and Tumbler Ridge that will see varying levels of new regulatory restrictions placed on industrial development, and new land protections mainly in high elevation habitats. Some of the restrictions to industry access and development would be immediate and permanent through the life of the agreement -- 30 years - while others would be interim.

"You could stop all logging and industry today, and it would take decades for the habitat to recover, and you would still need predator control or other management," Seip said.

"We have a variety of management techniques, none are easy and simple to implement. it's a very difficult question. What's the best mix of strategies to recover these caribou populations?"

The agreement calls for small area to be set aside as a "sustainable activity area" where existing tenures in high elevation habitat can continue to proceed. However, a newly established committee would review new tenure applications in the area, said Russ Laroche of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. The committee would be comprised of B.C., Ottawa, and First Nations representatives, however, local governments and industry would not have a seat at the table.

The committee would "look at those impact assessments and mitigation plans, take information, and provide a recommendation to decision makers on whether they support the application," Laroche said.

Other areas are identified for restoration and conservation, including a major expansion of the Klinse-za Provincial Park. An area has been set aside where West Moberly intends to apply for a woodland licence, though officials say they have no plans to use the licence for logging.

The agreement does include provisions that existing infrastructure and projects with an environmental assessment certificate issued before Feb. 1, 2019, would not be affected by resource development moratoriums.

However, the moratoriums are still expected to have a big impact on industry, in particular forestry. There have yet to be any determinations about the amount of timber supply that will cut from logging companies, though the government ballparks the figure around 300,000 cubic metres. Companies say it will likely be much higher than that.

Franco Antoniazzi, regional manager for Canfor, said the company has seen little consultation through the drafting of the agreement, and is currently analyzing its impacts on its mills and operations in the region. The company employs more than 500 in the region, and contributes more than $600 million annually to the economy.

"This could be very substantial," Antoniazzi said.

Rodger Roy, general manager for West Fraser in Chetwynd, said his company was told by the government to expect job losses in the range of 500 people, which he said would shut down either its operations or Canfor's. West Fraser has a $24 million annual payroll, and has invested $150 million into its Chetwynd facility in the last decade, and another $34 million into the community.

"This is a very significant issue for us and we absolutely feel left out of this process," Roy said.

"The minister (Doug Donaldson) made the comment that he would expect, based on that cut, that we wouldn't see more than half a shift lost in production at one of the mills. Obviously, the minister doesn't understand the economics, and doesn't understand it's not a linear relationship between cut and operations.

"We absolutely need to be involved in an economic discussion, and it can't be rushed. It has to be taken very carefully, and considered very carefully by the committee."

The two companies, along with business leaders and local government officials have called for a study to be done on the impacts the agreement will have on the local economy. The government said that work is just beginning, and that the results of the study will be given to the government cabinet.

However, Kathleen Connelly of the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce, said a socio-economic study is impossible to complete in the short timeframe between now and when the agreements are expected to be signed and put into force this summer.

The socio economic impacts to our region could potentially be devastating," Connelly said.

"What we're asking for ... is that government extend the amount of time government and citizens can respond to these concerns, that the regional district can hire legal counsel if they require it, that they can do an independent socio-economic assessment, look at yours compare that data, and make decisions that will actually allow our communities to respond in a manner that will allow them to mitigate for what is going to happen to industry -- not only forestry and mining, but the small businesses that will be impacted."

Avoiding an emergency order

The federal government last year declared the herds in the South Peace to be facing an imminent threat to their survival and recovery. It's been pressured to implement an emergency order under the Species At Risk Act that could shut down all industrial activity in the region.

However, government officials say the partnership agreement with West Moberly and Saulteau, as well as a separate agreement between B.C. and Canada would go a long way to avoid that.

Jim Webb, a policy advisor for West Moberly, said his organization is not directly funded by U.S. interests, though he noted the First Nation does belong to a number of international organizations such as the Boreal Leadership Council, which does receive funding from American foundations.

"Our agenda is not driven by those organizations. Our agenda is driven by this ethic of stewardship, and the life of the Dane-zaa," Webb said.

"We want caribou on the landscape the same way we want to continue a way of life partially related to caribou on the landscape. The treaty says the Crown will provide those animals, allow us to manage how we use them, and help us to protect them."

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