A new southern mountain caribou protection agreement is being heralded as a landmark measure to protect six highly endangered herds in Treaty 8 traditional territory in B.C.’s northeast.
But scientists say a second, new conservation agreement aimed at protecting the rest of B.C.’s imperilled southern mountain caribou herds is “vague,” and some conservation groups are calling it a roadmap for the potential local extinction of herds already in sharp decline.
Both long-awaited draft agreements were announced Thursday by the B.C. government. The B.C. press gallery was given 30 minutes notice of a lunchtime technical briefing and news conference, and the government did not issue a press release.
A widely praised caribou partnership agreement for B.C.’s Peace region — forged among Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations and the federal and provincial governments — features habitat protection, including the designation of a new protected area for caribou and areas that would have interim moratoriums on industrial development such as logging.
It also includes an Indigenous guardian program, building on complex efforts by the two First Nations to save the spiritually important Klinse-za caribou herd — part of the Pine River caribou population unit — through a five-year-old maternal penning project. Details about the program, which West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations will take the lead in planning, have not yet been released.
Roland Willson, chief of West Moberly First Nations, called the partnership agreement “a real achievement” and praised B.C.’s NDP government for “cleaning up the mess” left by the previous Liberal administration.
Only 219 caribou remain in six herds in the south Peace region, compared to 800 in the early 2000s. Those six herds are found in the Pine River, Quintette and Narraway population units near Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge and Mackenzie. A seventh herd in the Pine River population unit has already become locally extinct.
“We’re excited about it,” Willson told The Narwhal. “It took a long time to get it done. The focus was on trying to save jobs and trying to save caribou — finding the balance.”
“Everybody is going to have to make adjustments,” Willson said. “It can’t be the status quo anymore because the status quo got us to this stage.”
“It can’t be the status quo anymore because the status quo got us to this stage.” — Chief Roland Willson
Saulteau First Nations Chief Ken Cameron called the partnership agreement a “powerful moment in history” and a “turning point for B.C., Canada and First Nations.”
“People working together to save a species from extinction — it’s real and we can do this — our partnership agreement confirms it,” Cameron told reporters.
Questions remain for southern B.C. caribou herds
The second, far less detailed conservation agreement — between the federal and provincial governments — covers the remainder of B.C.’s imperilled southern mountain caribou herds and does not include any habitat protections or proposed restrictions on industrial development.
Instead, the bilateral agreement focuses on measures such as continued wolf and moose kills and keeps the door ajar for new B.C. government logging approvals in critical caribou habitat. It makes a commitment to developing plans “to reduce habitat disturbance,” but without any fixed timelines.
“It still leaves many question marks for those of us who have been worried about caribou for some time,” said UNBC scientist Chris Johnson, who sits on committees advising the federal government on caribou recovery and co-chairs the terrestrial mammals subcommittee of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
“Time is precious,” Johnson told The Narwhal. “Anyone who disagrees with that simply has their head buried in the sand. Seeing the disappearance of the Purcell and Selkirk caribou herds is evidence enough.”
“It’s no longer a question of people being concerned that there’s a lot of crying about the sky falling. The sky is falling for caribou.”
Almost 30 of B.C.’s 52 surviving caribou herds are at risk of local extinction, and a dozen of those herds now have fewer than 25 animals. Two herds in the Kootenay region were declared locally extinct early this year.
After decades of inaction, the B.C. government was compelled to come up with a plan to protect southern mountain caribou following federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s declaration last May that southern mountain caribou faced “imminent threats” to their recovery and that immediate intervention was required.
If McKenna is not satisfied that B.C. has a suitable plan of action to protect endangered herds, she can ask the federal Cabinet to approve an emergency protection order under the federal Species at Risk Act.
That would allow Ottawa to make decisions that are normally within the jurisdiction of the B.C. government, including whether or not to grant logging permits.
Logging approved in critical caribou habitat
Since last May, the B.C. government has approved 400 new logging cutblocks in endangered caribou critical habitat.
Willson explained that nobody wanted a federal protection order because it would have shut down industry and caused job loss.
“It’s a shame that it got to the stage where Canada recognized the imminent danger and had to step in,” he said in an interview.
“But they did, and that brought everybody to the table. The focus, good or bad, was making sure that the emergency orders weren’t put into place. Nobody could take the chance of that happening.”
Human disturbances, including clear-cut logging, mining and oil and gas development, have given natural predators like wolves easy access to caribou whose habitat has been destroyed or fragmented right across the country, with disastrous consequences for once-robust herds.
“I think there’s a balance to be had between development and caribou protection,” Willson said. “There’s got to be a way to make that work, and a willingness to make that work.”
At a media technical briefing, a spokesperson for the B.C. ministry of forests, lands and natural resource operations said a federal protection order could have resulted in significant job losses, pointing out that the draft agreements will “minimize the risk” of an emergency order being placed on B.C.
No mining operations would be affected by the partnership agreement, although forestry would be impacted.
“We recognize that measures to recover caribou will have some impacts on economic activities in and around caribou habitat,” Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations, told reporters. Donaldson said that the two agreements aim “to get caribou conservation and recovery underway,” while ensuring resource extraction can continue.
“The purpose of draft agreements is to ensure caribou recovery in B.C.,” Donaldson said.
“The whole intent of this draft negotiated partnership agreement is to ensure the conservation and recovery of caribou herds that’s so important for biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, while at the same time ensuring that natural extraction activities can continue to be part of the economy in the northeast.”
Asked if the government will continue to issue logging approvals in critical caribou habitat, Donaldson replied that “logging permits will not be issued in core areas identified by provincial biologists as critical for caribou recovery.”
What is ‘critical habitat?’
Johnson, who lauded proposed protections in the partnership agreement with First Nations, pointed out that the definition of critical habitat carries a legal meaning under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and refers to the habitat required for a species to persist.
“It is a bit of a game to re-label critical habitat in a way that potentially removes it from the protections of SARA and I don’t know for sure — I can’t say because I’m not inside the minister’s head — but I suspect there’s some of that gamemanship going on here.”
Scientist Justina Ray highlighted the contrast between what she called a “comprehensive” partnership agreement and a “pretty vague” bilateral conservation agreement.
“The language is so dramatically different, from what I’ve seen,” said Ray, who also sits on committees advising the federal government on caribou recovery and co-chairs the terrestrial mammals subcommittee of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
“You don’t see the holistic language that you see in the partnership agreement anywhere else.”
Ray said it’s “very unclear” how the conservation agreement will protect the majority of B.C.’s at-risk southern mountain caribou herds, which she said are in an “emergency situation.”
“You can’t tell anything from this,” she said in an interview. “It outlines key principles and broad recovery actions but it doesn’t say what these are. While it talks about benefits, it’s pretty tentative about whether or not it will actually help caribou.”
“The conservation agreement is very quiet about how resource management will shift in some fashion to take care of populations at the scale that matters, which is at the population scale, and manage cumulative disturbance.”
Tim Burkhart, spokesperson for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a science-based organization that works to protect the longest remaining wildlife corridor on the continent, called the partnership agreement with First Nations “a real achievement.”
“Sitting down together, working with First Nations to save endangered species, is exactly what we want government to be doing for biodiversity,” Burkhart told The Narwhal.
“The plan they’ve come up with is good news for the Klinse-za herd for sure. However, they’ve left all the other caribou herds in B.C. hanging.”
Burkhart said the conservation agreement is “inadequate,” noting that herd plans won’t be finished until 2020 under the draft plan.
“How many caribou herds can we lose in the meantime?” he asked. “The caribou can’t wait. While B.C. and Canada negotiated we lost two herds.”
“The caribou can’t wait. While B.C. and Canada negotiated we lost two herds.” — Tim Burkhart, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative
Wilderness Committee spokesperson Charlotte Dawe also praised the partnership agreement and said the conservation agreement falls short.
“I predict we’ll continue to see logging in critical habitat under this plan and caribou numbers will continue to dwindle ever closer to extinction,” Dawe said in a statement.
“It’s always maddening to see recovery plans with wording like ‘we will plan to make more plans.’ When it comes to habitat protection, we don’t need more planning, we need off-limit areas and protected habitat.”
Willson said the “million dollar question” is how many at-risk herds in B.C. can be saved.
“Our herd, the one we’ve been working on, the Klinse-za herd, is not out of danger,” he pointed out. “They’re a long way from being out of danger. We’ve had all hands on deck and we’re still going to be like that for a while.”
The provincial government is seeking public input on the draft agreements until April 26.