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British Columbia ‘The level of urgency is high’: Ottawa still hasn’t acted on endangered southern mountain caribou

The federal government was preparing last May to override British Columbia’s powers over logging and permitting, in order to protect the endangered southern mountain caribou. Ottawa warned at the time that the province needed a robust protection plan for the most threatened populations, or it would lose control over resource-development decisions: “The level of urgency is high,” Jonathan Wilkinson, then-parliamentary secretary for the environment, declared.

Five months on, it looks like an empty threat.

Southern mountain caribou in B.C. have been listed as endangered species for over a decade.

GB/The Globe and Mail

The southern mountain caribou that populate the Rockies have been listed as an endangered species for 15 years, and there are an estimated 3,000 animals left. In May, federal Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna declared an “imminent" threat to the recovery of 10 herds, spread across vast distances, that total just 229 animals. Some of those herds are so small, they are effectively extinct.

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Ms. McKenna’s declaration paved the way for an emergency protection order to cover the caribou’s habitat, which is mostly in B.C. but with some herds ranging across the Rockies into Alberta. Such an order would allow the federal government to make unilateral decisions over resource development that is normally within the jurisdiction of provincial governments, such as logging and mining. The province doesn’t want to give up that power, and wants to balance habitat protection against the importance of economic activity.

Since May, the two levels of government have worked on a joint recovery plan that is not yet complete. Meanwhile, conservationists say, the province has made things worse by approving 83 new logging cutblocks within the ranges of these endangered herds. (Ottawa and B.C. don’t agree on where those critical habitats are, so the province maintains it is not allowing logging directly within critical habitat.)

“Caribou are in crisis, especially in the southern mountain range,” said Eduardo Sousa, senior campaigner for Greenpeace Canada. Greenpeace and four other conservation groups have enlisted the support of artist Robert Bateman to launch a campaign on Monday to call for a moratorium on new development in critical caribou habitat.

“What we need is habitat protection and the province is not going there – they are just tinkering,” Mr. Sousa said.

In the statement declaring an imminent threat, the federal government said the most significant and immediate threat to recovery is unsustainable predation. However it has not acted to prevent British Columbia’s new logging plans, saying instead it is working “to come to an agreement as soon as possible” with the B.C. government, Ms. McKenna’s press secretary, Caroline Thériault, said in a statement.

The network of roads, trails, right-of-ways and seismic lines that carve up the caribou’s landscape has handed the advantage to wolves, bears and cougars. Allowing new logging means more resource roads, and greater risks to the struggling herds.

Doug Donaldson, B.C.'s Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, said there is a lot of effort going into consultations with Indigenous communities, industry and resource-dependent communities to decide how best to protect the caribou without putting people out of work.

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“We want to avoid unilateral measures by the federal government based solely on habitat considerations,” he said in an interview. “We want to make sure these iconic species are recovering, but logging has not stopped. The social impacts would be significant.”

If Ms. McKenna were to invoke Section 80 of the Species at Risk Act – an emergency order – she could prohibit activities that might adversely affect the threatened species and their habitat.

That is precisely what the conservation groups want, but Mr. Donaldson is confident that Ottawa and B.C. will reach an alternate solution by the beginning of 2019 to avoid such a federal intervention.

Roland Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nations, said time is running out for the caribou. Many of the most at-risk caribou are in the Treaty 8 territory that includes his nation, and their population is now half of what it was just four years ago.

“B.C. does not want to be seen as impacting the economy, and that’s primarily what has got us to this state – this unfettered resource extraction,” he said.

Logging is the main culprit, he explained, because resource roads create corridors that allow predators to reach the caribou in snowy terrain. “When a logging company punches a road into the caribou’s habitat, the wolf just trots up the road. It’s easy pickings for them. We’re not blaming the wolves – there used to be a balance between them and the caribou, until we saw this industrial activity.”

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For the past 40 years, the West Moberly have not been able to hunt caribou because of the declining population. Their community has been working to help restore the population, but they can’t halt logging in critical habitat on their own.

“I want somebody to say ‘no’ to logging," Mr. Willson said. "But government, they are just trying to mitigate something that cannot be mitigated.”

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