A B.C. First Nation says it will come up with its own plan to manage dwindling caribou herds in the Chilcotin region, saying the provincial government is not doing enough to protect the animals.
“We’re on the brink of extinction for caribou in the Chilcotin and we can’t just sit by and think the Province of B.C. is going to save our caribou – they’ve managed [them] almost to extinction,” Joe Alphonse, tribal chair of the Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG), said in an interview on Oct. 4.
Mr. Alphonse said the TNG’s “herd management plan,” announced on Oct. 2, will involve asking snowmobilers and logging contractors to stay out of certain areas in the Chilcotin region, an area west of Williams Lake in the B.C. Interior.
“There has to be a ban of logging in areas where there are woodland caribou, there has to be a ban of snowmobiling … when you ride through in the winter, what you’re doing is creating trails for wolves to hunt,” Mr. Alphonse said.
In an emailed statement, the province said it would work with the TNG and “see that they have a key role in caribou recovery,” adding that the ministry has key data needed for herd planning, and so felt it should co-ordinate that task.
The First Nation’s decision highlights continuing concerns over caribou in British Columbia, where the provincial government recently proposed an emergency wolf cull in part of the province as a stopgap protection measure as a contentious recovery plan is reworked.
“For threatened caribou populations, decreasing the number of wolves in caribou habitat is the quickest and most effective management tool to reverse population trends in the short term," said a letter, dated Aug. 22, from the province to First Nations and other groups, including the B.C. Wildlife Federation.
B.C. is home to 54 herds of woodland caribou, including the southern mountain caribou, a group of herds listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act since 2003.
Caribou numbers have been declining for decades because of factors including habitat loss, dropping from an estimated 40,000 animals 30 years ago to about 15,500 today.
In May, 2018, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna concluded southern mountain caribou were at “imminent threat,” opening the door for an emergency order from the federal government.
Such an order would allow the federal government to make decisions about resource development that is normally within the jurisdiction of provincial governments, such as logging and mining.
The province, wanting to head off an emergency order, worked on a plan with the federal government and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations. But when the province unveiled draft agreements this past March, there was a public backlash over potential restrictions on logging and backcountry access.
Premier John Horgan extended the consultation period for a month and named former MLA Blair Lekstrom as a community liaison. In June, Mr. Lekstrom issued a report that made 14 recommendations, including an interim moratorium on new resource development in parts of northeastern B.C., which has been implemented.
In a letter to the province this past May, Ms. McKenna warned that the “prospect of an emergency order cannot be ignored” and urged the province to move quickly.
But that emergency order never came.
With a federal election campaign under way and the government in caretaker mode, Ms. McKenna’s office referred questions to the federal Department of the Environment.
Protecting caribou is “primarily a provincial and territorial responsibility,” but the department continues to work with all partners, including B.C., to support southern mountain caribou, spokeswoman Samantha Bayard said on Friday in an e-mail.
Asked if Ms. McKenna had sought an emergency order, Ms. Bayard said any recommendations or deliberations regarding an emergency protection order are a matter of cabinet confidence.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Oct. 2 recognized 17 herds of southern mountain caribou as endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Previously, the agency listed only the South Selkirk herd as a federally endangered species.
The new ruling means habitat will be protected, even though the animals have disappeared from the United States in recent years, said Sean Nixon, a lawyer with Ecojustice in Vancouver.
“We have this bizarre situation where there are no caribou left in the U.S., but they’re protecting the species habitat so that caribou can return … while we still have mountain caribou in B.C. but the province isn’t providing any meaningful protection for the species’ habitat," he said.
A meeting of a “leadership table” on the caribou recovery plan is scheduled for this month, West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson said.
Mr. Willson wants to see more than stopgap measures, saying caribou need protected habitat to thrive.
“Wolves are an issue, but the reason the wolves are an issue [is] because of development,” Mr. Willson said.
Editor’s note: Clarification/Editor's note: (Oct. 7, 2019) This story has been amended to include a response from the province.