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Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said southern mountain caribou face an 'imminent threat' to recovery across British Columbia.HO/The Canadian Press

The federal government says it is hopeful that it can work with British Columbia and First Nations to come up with a caribou-conservation plan soon – and if not, Ottawa is prepared to issue an emergency protection order.

Ottawa is talking with the provincial government and First Nations, particularly the West Moberly and Saulteau, federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in response to questions at a news conference on an unrelated issue Tuesday in Vancouver.

He said he hoped for a plan either before the Oct. 21 election or shortly after, but that an emergency order could still be issued.

“This government has certainly not taken an emergency order off the table … we would certainly prefer to have a negotiated solution to this issue, but … at the end of the day, we will make sure we fulfill our obligations,” he said.

In May of 2018, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said southern mountain caribou faced an “imminent threat” to recovery in 10 local population units across B.C., setting the stage for the federal government to issue an emergency protection order.

Facing that prospect, B.C. negotiated recovery plans with Ottawa and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations.

The draft partnership agreement was released this spring, but faced a backlash over concerns about the impact to forestry and recreation in caribou habitat.

Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Blair Lekstrom was appointed to report on community concerns. In June, the province released Mr. Lekstrom’s report, which made 14 recommendations, including an interim moratorium on new resource developments in parts of northeastern B.C. which has been implemented.

Critics said delays are putting caribou at risk and that a pending federal election could push back the process even further by making an emergency protection order unlikely.

“What I see is more of the same – southern resident caribou were listed 16 years ago and we still don’t have sufficient habitat protection for caribou,” said Tara Martin, a professor in conservation decision science at the University of British Columbia and a spokesperson for a group of scientists leading research on endangered species.

“The focus instead has been on wolf culling and penning of pregnant females. And while those actions might keep caribou in the system, they are not going to recover caribou.”

Recovery programs require habitat protection that would allow endangered animals to regain a foothold, she said.

B.C. is home to 52 herds of woodland caribou, which for decades have been under pressure because of habitat loss from logging and mining and predators. More than half of B.C.'s surviving herds are at risk of disappearing.

Southern mountain caribou were designated as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act in 2003.

Reached Tuesday, Mr. Lekstrom said a process is under way to set up a “leadership table” that would bring together representatives from governments, First Nations and industry and said he did not expect an emergency order.

“I’m happy with where we are at on this,” Mr. Lekstrom said, adding that a first meeting is likely this month.

“This is about neighbours coming together to making something work for the caribou,” he added.

At the event Tuesday, Mr. Wilkinson said the federal government has approved $1.8-million for projects through the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk and $2.7-million for projects through the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk.

Those funds will pay for projects including improved monitoring of white sturgeon on the Nechako River with the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, the ministry said in a release.