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At last count, there were just three surviving members of the South Selkirk herd of the southern mountain caribou – all females, and none of them pregnant.

Conservationists warned this spring that some of these caribou populations have declined to the point where they are, effectively, extinct.

This should surprise no one who has watched the fate of the once-abundant southern mountain caribou. They were listed as a threatened wildlife species 15 years ago, but that didn’t help. In fact, the threats to their population continued – and escalated.

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This year, there are an estimated 3,800 animals left – mostly in B.C. but some ranging across the Rockies into Alberta. Ten herds now have fewer than 100 animals.

But something, finally, is going to change. On Friday, the federal Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, declared an “imminent threat” to their recovery.

It is a first step that will force British Columbia to take action to protect the caribou’s habitat – or Ottawa will take action for them.

“The level of urgency is high and this order recognizes its importance,” said Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson, Ms. McKenna’s parliamentary secretary.

”We can’t kick this problem down the road, which has been the path of government for 15 years.”

Mr. Wilkinson said B.C. and Ottawa will need to try to work out a new conservation plan in the coming weeks or months. Ms. McKenna will then go to cabinet with a request for an emergency protection order – unless there is an agreement that the province has a robust plan of action.

An emergency protection order would allow Ottawa to make decisions over resource development that is normally within the jurisdiction of provincial governments, such as logging and mining.

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He said the solutions won’t be easy.

“This is hard. Addressing this type of issue will require some challenging conversations and in some cases, some difficult decisions,” he said. “Nobody is interested in shutting down industry, but we’ve all made strong commitments to biodiversity.”

Conservationists have been calling for action for more than a decade, describing the efforts of both the federal and provincial governments as a disaster. But with this declaration, Ottawa is forcing B.C. to take action that the province had hoped to forestall.

The B.C. NDP government promised Endangered Species legislation but hasn’t gotten around to it – it only just launched a three-part series of public consultations. The province has also asked for input on what to do with the southern mountain caribou, which would have kicked any action down the road.

“This is the day we’ve been waiting for,” said Candace Batycki of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. Ms. Batycki says both B.C. and Canada share the blame for the failure of past conservation efforts.

“This clears the way for habitat protection. It says, ‘British Columbia, it is time to do it, or have it done for you.’”

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Her group wants an immediate moratorium on industrial activity in southern mountain caribou critical habitat. That would mean no more logging, road-building, unsustainable recreation, oil and gas development or mining in areas where the federal government has now declared to be critical to the recovery of the 10 smallest herds.

B.C. has enacted measures to manage the population in the past, but Ms. McKenna concluded that “significant” habitat protection or restoration measures are necessary to improve the likelihood of recovery.

The NDP have been in power for less than a year, and it doesn’t wear all the decisions that have led to the caribou’s decline. In April, the government promised funding to restore caribou habitat, taking aim at helping the populations escape predators – wolves, bears and cougars – that have benefits from the roads, trails, right-of-ways and seismic lines that have carved up the landscape where caribou live.

Significant habitat protection, though, will be tougher. The NDP will have to commit to difficult actions that previous governments balked at, if it wishes to avoid having Ottawa dictate the solutions.

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