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Fort Nelson First Nation Files Legal Challenge to Gas Pipeline Claiming It Will Threaten Caribou Habitat

A First Nation in northeastern B.C. is challenging the province’s approval of a proposed gas pipeline that would cut across critical habitat of threatened boreal woodland caribou.

Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN) has filed for a judicial review of B.C. Oil and Gas Commission’s approval last month of a pipeline, proposed by Rockyview Resources Inc. and Shanghai Energy Corp., that would run through FNFN territory, resulting in 78 hectares of disturbance to caribou habitat.

“The 39-kilometre proposed gas pipeline cuts right through core caribou habitat in our territory, in an area with the most concentrated and highest-known use by boreal caribou for forage, calving, rearing and protection from predators,” said Lana Lowe, FNFN land and resources director.

“This area has been important harvesting grounds for our people, but, in particular, the area contains very important habitat for caribou, which our people have relied on for many generations to feed our families,” she said.

The legal challenge is necessary because the Oil and Gas Commission did not adequately consult the First Nation or consider their concerns about the threatened caribou population, according to a news release from the band.

A plan, put together by FNFN, to support the recovery of caribou in the area and a suggested consultation process was ignored by the Oil and Gas Commission, says the news release.

“The BCOGC refused the invitation to work out a specific consultation process and deemed it not practical to consider the FNFN Caribou Report. This resulted in the BCOGC using inadequate and incomplete data to determine that the proposed pipeline poses ‘no material adverse effect’ to the caribou populations in the area,” it says.

“The BCOGC demonstrated an inadequate, unlawful and wholly unacceptable approach to consultation with FNFN regarding how this pipeline will impact boreal caribou in our territory,” said acting Chief Sharleen Gale.

The First Nation is questioning why the project would be approved only months after former premier Christy Clark acknowledged that some woodland caribou herds are in danger of disappearing and announced $27-million for a revamped caribou recovery program.

About 728 boreal caribou remain in B.C. with five range areas, most in the north-east of the province. Boreal caribou are listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act and are red-listed provincially, meaning their status is threatened to endangered.

The pipeline would be in the Maxhamish boreal caribou range and that population has decreased to from 306 to 104 animals since 2004 and calf survival rates are consistently below the level required to avoid further population declines, according to FNFN numbers.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the herd is stable, yet the province and Rockyview Resources insist that it is,” Gale said.

First Nations are working to restore populations and,once populations are stabilized, hope to resume treaty rights to harvest caribou, says the news release.

More than 80 per cent of boreal caribou habitat in B.C. is within FNFN territory, Gale said.

“We clearly have an interest in saving and helping restore caribou populations and, for this reason, our community has chosen not to hunt caribou until the population stabilizes. We expect the same stewardship ethic from companies who wish to access our territory for economic purposes,” she said.

Economic development is encouraged in FNFN territory provided it creates long-term benefits for members and respects land, water and treaty rights, Gale said.

According to an FNFN background paper, there have been 77 referrals for projects within the territory over the last year and the Rockyview proposal is the only one the community rejected.

“FNFN wants to support projects in our territory. We also need proponents to engage with us early in the planning process, commit to building long-term relationships and operate in a way that supports FNFN development objectives,” Gale said.

Recovery plans for boreal caribou herds has sparked controversy for several years as the province tracks and shoots wolves from helicopters in an effort to stop predation, while conservation groups say that the major culprit is habitat destruction as resource companies open up the area.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society launched a lawsuit against federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, saying she has not acted to protect the habitat of boreal woodland caribou even though critical habitat was identified in 2012.

Image: Woodland caribou in Jasper National Park. Photo: Parks Canada

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Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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