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Caribou populations have steadily declined for decades, as their habitat is carved up by human activity, making them vulnerable to predators.

A plan to save threatened caribou populations in British Columbia will be unveiled this month. Whether it is imposed by Ottawa, or negotiated by B.C., it is expected to reduce logging to protect habitat – a measure that the province can no longer avoid.

The federal Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, warned the B.C. government more than one year ago that the province needed a plan to protect habitat for southern mountain caribou, or she would go to her cabinet and get an emergency protection order.

This week, Ms. McKenna will have her final scheduled cabinet meeting before the next federal election and the B.C. government has yet to finalize a plan. The province is asking for a little more time.

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Caribou populations have steadily declined for decades, as their habitat is carved up by human activity, making them vulnerable to predators.

This has been a slow-moving train wreck – Canada has recognized the threat to these caribou populations since 2003 – and it will take decades to repair the caribou’s habitat to the point where they can recover. The southern mountain caribou need large range areas of relatively undisturbed, interconnected habitat. Industrial activity – oil and gas development, forestry, mining, wind farms, pipelines and transmission lines – have fractured their habitat, creating myriad hunting corridors for wolves, bears and wolverines.

Rehabilitating the land base is part of the solution, but additional disruptions also have to be curbed, particularly logging. The former BC Liberal government did not take measurable action. Now, the NDP government, two years into its mandate, is still struggling to deliver the news to resource communities.

A draft caribou conservation plan released this spring, negotiated between the province, Ottawa, and two First Nations in the Peace River region, proposed a timber harvest reduction that was met with such vehement reaction in forestry-dependent communities in the north that the province had to pull back and launch consultations.

“You can’t come up with a resolution to something while excluding 97 per cent of the people in the region from the conversation,” said Blair Lekstrom, the former BC Liberal cabinet minister who was appointed this spring to do the consultation and find a way forward for Premier John Horgan’s government. Mr. Lekstrom’s report is still on Mr. Horgan’s desk, but it is expected to be released this month. Mr. Lekstrom said the communities in the north support caribou protection, but the province needs to protect jobs as well.

Rachel Plotkin, boreal program manager for the David Suzuki Foundation, says the narrative that caribou conservation measures will hurt resource-dependent communities is just wrong – but it has succeeded in scaring off politicians from taking action.

The conservation group has produced a new report showing how conservation and economic prosperity can co-exist in areas across Canada where caribou are threatened. The report, titled Room for Both, says industrial activity can occur, but it requires a sustainable approach that respects the caribou’s habitat.

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“We are facing an extinction crisis, and a climate crisis, and we need the political will to make the changes necessary to make a world for future generations,” Ms. Plotkin said in an interview.

The report cites a study by economist Mark Anielski, who looked at the southern mountain caribou in B.C. He estimates roughly $1-billion is needed to restore fragmented boreal caribou habitat, spending that would be spread over the next two decades. That would create and replace jobs in northern rural municipalities and First Nations, offsetting job losses that are expected to result from reducing logging activity.

The catch is, who pays? Ms. Plotkin says both industry and government have profited from resource development, and both need to be part of the solution: “We need to recognize that industry and government have made billions of dollars on the destruction of caribou habitat.”

In a recent letter to the province, Ms. McKenna blamed the crisis facing caribou on “decades of mismanagement” by the B.C. government. Development has continued as individual herds have been wiped out.

Even if governments invest in the large-scale restoration projects that the David Suzuki Foundation calls for, there will be a transition for workers in communities such as Chetwynd, where two sawmills are already vying for a diminishing supply of timber.

Doug Donaldson, B.C.'s Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, said the caribou solution will include restoration of habitat, and a curtailment of logging. Here, he would welcome help from Ottawa. “With that restriction, there will be impacts on jobs," he said. “We expect the federal government to be fully at the table when it comes to financial compensation.”

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