Saving our caribou forces us to face tough questions

We all benefit from healthy ecosystems and biological diversity. It should not be up to any one community to bear the burden of making long-overdue changes to the way we approach protecting wildlife and wild places

Caribou in B.C. are standing at a precipice.

Recovery planning for endangered caribou in the southern part of the province began 16 years ago and made little headway until very recently. But now just as governments finally (and belatedly) take steps to help herds that are, in some cases, on the brink of disappearing, a public backlash is building, driven by rumours of mill closures and closed backcountry areas.  

So we have some difficult decisions to make. Are we ready to write off caribou in the name of avoiding potential economic impacts?  

Sure, we can continue with things like predator control and penning of pregnant females, which can be effective for preventing small and quickly declining populations from disappearing completely. But we must acknowledge that these are expensive band aids that cannot be applied indefinitely, particularly when logging, road and trail building and other developments are allowed to continue in caribou habitat at the same time. Without curbing impacts on habitat, pens and predator control are unlikely to maintain — let alone restore — caribou populations in the long run.

This realization underlies the partnership agreement between the provincial government and Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations. They have developed a holistic plan that combines multiple elements, including aggressive habitat restoration and reduction of resource development and human activities within the critical habitat of caribou. The actions laid out in the plan will take time to deliver results, but they are the only solutions that can ensure a long-term future for caribou in Canada.

Yet, instead of the much-deserved acknowledgement for being leaders in caribou conservation, these First Nations are receiving a hostile response from some residents who want solutions that will have little or no impact on forestry or intensive recreation.

Implementation of plans like these will cause economic dislocation and discomfort, no doubt about it.  But we have reached this point because we have spent the last several decades looking for a free lunch. Our governments and industries have continually acted as if there was always somewhere else caribou could go to get out of the way of clearcuts, roads and snowmobiles. They have insisted on pushing resource operations into areas that they knew were important to caribou and, as a result, we have watched caribou populations shrink or disappear altogether.  

The benefits we would realize from saving caribou are simply not as concrete as the value of getting more wood to the mill or allowing another heli-skiing operator to open in another area.

If we decide that it is “uneconomic” or simply inconvenient to save caribou, we will knowingly pull one more block from the now teetering tower of biodiversity. As scientists, we are all too aware of the biodiversity crisis sweeping the world in what has come to be known as the “Anthropocene.”  

Careful tracking of species listed under the Species at Risk Act has documented a very high proportion of species that have fared no better (or even deteriorated) between assessments. The reasons behind this trend become clear when you consider not a single province has completed the range planning required under the federal recovery plan for boreal caribou, largely because such plans would have to acknowledge that we have pushed many caribou populations to the edge and there is no room for further “compromise.”

This issue, of course, is about much more than just caribou. Their need for large areas of old, intact forest makes them a representative for many other species that have struggled to survive the onslaught of human activity and habitat destruction that has now reached even the furthest corners of B.C. Saving caribou means potential gains for a whole suite of wild species. And acting to proactively protect caribou ranges in northern B.C., where populations are still relatively healthy, would help to keep entire ecosystems intact.

But the benefits we would realize from saving caribou are simply not as concrete as the value of getting more wood to the mill or allowing another heli-skiing operator to open in another area. We do a terrible job of valuing natural services and biodiversity retention because we don’t “pay” for these services — they have always just been there. We will likely only really value them when they are gone.

At the same time, putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your head is enormously challenging in boom-and-bust resource communities that have seen automation wipe out thousands of jobs. That’s why we need to better share the burden of helping species at risk.

The federal government is currently providing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for economic diversification, job training and new infrastructure to communities affected by its coal phase out requirement. Essentially, we as Canadians have agreed to share the cost of cleaning up our air and cutting greenhouse gas emissions because, just as with protecting ecosystems, we will all share the benefits.

With scientists reporting that one million species are headed toward extinction worldwide, we need a similar shared effort to accommodate the needs of species at risk.

We all benefit from healthy ecosystems and biological diversity and it should not be up to any one community to bear the entire burden of making long overdue changes to the way we approach protecting wildlife and wild places. But we do have to acknowledge that at this point any effort to conserve caribou is going to be challenging — scientifically, ethically and economically. Their steady decline is telling us that we can no longer bury our heads in the sand on this increasingly alarming situation.

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