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Scientist Justina Ray has been studying caribou for fifteen years and still gets shivers up her spine when she spots their tracks braiding across snowy landscapes.
“Every sighting that I have in a natural habitat is a sensation,” said the senior scientist and president of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada (WCSC). “It’s extraordinary. They can make themselves look more numerous just through these gorgeous tracks.”
After witnessing the sharp decline of B.C. caribou herds, Ray and other caribou scientists were hopeful last November when the B.C. government was compelled — under the federal Species at Risk Act — to develop a conservation plan for woodland caribou recovery and protect their critical habitat in B.C.’s mountain forests.
But now their hope has shifted to “profound” concern following the publication of a B.C. government discussion paper billed by Doug Donaldson, minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development, as a “resource document” for a caribou recovery program.
The paper’s release followed the B.C. government’s surprising announcement that it will develop a “new,” “made in B.C.” program to save caribou, even though recovery strategies already exist to save the antlered mammal engraved on the Canadian quarter.
“We fear that intentions to develop a ‘made in B.C.’ approach will amount to much wasted time, even as decisions are underway to degrade more prime caribou habitat,” Ray and scientist Chris Johnson wrote in a six-page letter to Donaldson’s ministry.
The June letter said the ministry’s discussion paper ignores scientific findings, adds “little if anything” to the probability of species recovery and has an overall approach similar to those that have failed in the past.
Both scientists sit on committees advising the federal government on caribou recovery and they co-chair the terrestrial mammals subcommittee of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which in 2014 assessed the majority of B.C.’s caribou herds as endangered.
Thirty of B.C.’s 54 caribou herds are at risk of local extinction, including the Klinse-Za herd in the Peace region where First Nations are capturing pregnant caribou cows and penning them in a last-ditch effort to save the herd. Fourteen B.C. herds now have fewer than 25 animals, with only three animals remaining in the Gray Ghost herd in the southern Selkirk mountains.
Johnson, an ecology professor at UNBC, said in an interview that caribou are in a “crisis situation” and there is little time left for discussion.
“It just seemed to be a vanilla sort of flavoured discussion paper meant to appease people and give the impression that things are going to get better, without actually making any commitment or saying how things are going to get better for caribou,” Johnson said. “It seemed like a bit of a delaying tactic.”
In the letter, the scientists said they are “profoundly concerned” about the potential example B.C.’s $27 million caribou recovery program may provide for B.C.’s promised species at risk legislation if the new law follows the direction outlined in the discussion paper — which they characterize as a “vague set of initiatives that aspire to be something ‘new,’ but in fact look similar if not identical to the status quo that ignores legally mandated and scientifically supported recovery actions.”
The approach outlined in the discussion paper is not even legally consistent with B.C.’s obligation to protect critical caribou habitat under the federal Species at Risk Act, the scientists informed Donaldson’s ministry, which is responsible for issuing permits that impact caribou habitat, including for logging and road-building.
“This is because it spells out a direction that is more appropriately characterized as status quo than ‘new’ and ignores key tenets of clear and consistent scientific findings regarding caribou declines that suggest strongly that a ‘made in B.C.’ approach is both unreasonable and unnecessary,” they wrote.
Johnson said there is no need for a “made in B.C.” approach because scientifically supported approaches for recovering caribou already exist that focus on protecting critical habitat and limiting disturbance.
“The provincial government for the most part has ignored them,” Johnson said. “They’ve ignored most of their responsibilities under the [federal] Species at Risk Act.”
The discussion paper alludes to prioritizing recovery by herd, suggesting that recovering all of B.C.’s caribou herds may not be in the cards as far as the province is concerned.
But a triage approach would likely contravene current federal recovery strategies, Ray and Johnson told the ministry, calling for more transparency on the government’s objectives and strategies.
“Triage may be part of that mix, but please state so clearly and with the intent of a real dialogue and with clear criteria that avoid a situation whereby extirpation of herds is inadvertently incentivized.”
In a statement e-mailed to The Narwhal, the ministry said it has not given up on any herds but that “unfortunately, there may come a time when hard decisions on supporting failing herds may have to be made.”
A ministry spokesperson said the purpose of the discussion paper was to solicit feedback for the final caribou recovery plan, expected by the end of the year, and that the views of Ray and Johnson — with whom ministry staff have been in touch — will be considered, along with other feedback.
“The apparent omissions from the discussion paper do not mean they are not under consideration for the final provincial caribou recovery program paper,” the spokesperson noted.
The scientists told the ministry that one of the main problems with the discussion paper is that it “avoids a frank acknowledgment of the scientifically demonstrated risks” to long-term caribou survival in B.C. and elsewhere. Caribou, or Rangifer tarandus, the same species as reindeer, is vulnerable to extinction throughout most of its extensive Canadian range.
“It does so by undertaking the discussion of ‘challenges faced by caribou’ in a tentative manner, often relying on vague, jargon-laden language.” Well down the list is the primary driver of decline, human disturbance, they noted.
While the text eventually explains some of the primary factors causing caribou decline, it first sets a tone “that clearly avoids the key issues faced by caribou in B.C., namely multiple decades of cumulative clearing of habitat, mostly for commercial purposes,” Ray and Johnson said.
The term ‘cumulative impacts’ was not mentioned in the discussion paper.
The paper also ignores well-founded tenets of caribou research, according to the scientists. An accumulated body of evidence from several decades of research shows that increases in habitat disturbance result in a greater likelihood of population decline and local extinction, they pointed out.
“There is a solid grounding and understanding that the more habitat loss and disturbance there is in the landscape, the worse off the population is,” Ray said in an interview.
Even though limiting disturbance across caribou ranges and critical habitat figures prominently in federal recovery strategies, the B.C. discussion paper fails to acknowledge this, the scientists noted.
“We are concerned that this departure from the well-accepted and legally-required approach for recovery serves as the foundation for a ‘A New Approach: Made in B.C.’”
So-called “caribou-friendly approaches” emphasized in the discussion paper, such as best management practices, “will appeal to industry, but these shortcuts will not be effective without limiting the extent of habitat change across landscapes,” the scientists warned.
In fact, the B.C. government continues to entertain discussions about building open-pit coal mines in prime caribou habitat within several Central Mountain ranges, where every single herd is in decline, they pointed out.
One of those coal mines, near Tumbler Ridge, would further impact the already imperilled Quintette caribou herd.
The scientists noted that oil and gas activities — the dominant cause for land use change for boreal caribou herds and some mountain caribou herds — and mining are not even mentioned in the habitat management section of the paper, which fingers forestry and recreation as the major culprits for habitat loss.
“We’re at a place now where we’ve got to stop talking about accommodating everyone and start doing things for caribou because they’re just disappearing,” Johnson said. “Those days of managing for everything on these landscapes are behind us, at least relative to caribou conservation.”
The ministry spokesperson told The Narwhal the government is “examining new guidelines on industrial development in the woodland caribou’s critical habitat,” but details were not immediately forthcoming.
Ray and Johnson also called out the discussion paper for suggesting B.C. is doing good work to recover caribou “when in fact this is more sleight of hand for public consumption.”
The paper overstates efforts made by the B.C. and federal governments to protect caribou, the scientists wrote, saying it is “disingenuous” to suggest there has been much progress during what they characterize as “two decades of inaction” on the part of B.C.
Other than publicizing recovery strategies for both mountain and boreal caribou, no substantive progress has been made through policies, targeted management plans or applying the federal Species at Risk Act, the scientists said.
They also questioned the paper’s description of caribou penning experiments as “innovative, while they should be thought of as desperate measures that should be avoided…”
Ray and Johnson say they are aware of no evidence demonstrating that strategies such as supplemental feeding, maternal penning and predator control have resulted in the long-term recovery of the few populations where such actions have been taken.
B.C. is ahead of many provinces when it comes to monitoring caribou herds and tracking their decline, Ray pointed out.
“It has a lot of good information at hand to make decisions,” she said.
Whether or not the species survives in the long-term will depend on hard decisions by government with socioeconomic consequences, Ray and Johnson stated.
“It has to happen if we want to maintain caribou across many of these landscapes,” Johnson said. “We’re at a breaking point right now.”
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