An environmental group wants Ottawa to issue an emergency order to protect a British Columbia caribou population, warning that it is near extinction and that a draft federal-provincial conservation plan contains nothing that would protect it adequately.
The Valhalla Wilderness Society, which has outlined its concerns in a petition to the federal Environment Minister, says old-growth logging, recreational snow sports and predators are threatening the southern mountain caribou, which have been declining in northern B.C. for the past 30 years.
Lee Harding, a retired environmental scientist who reviewed and edited Valhalla's petition, singled out logging as a particular concern.
"Caribou need mature old forests with a heavy load of arboreal lichens to survive, and there has been almost no restriction on timber [logging] throughout their range," said Mr. Harding, a former senior wildlife scientist at Environment Canada.
"The caribou don't just need old-growth forests because of the lichen, which is what they eat in wintertime. They also need them to hide from wolves and other large predators."
Additionally, Mr. Harding said the roads and pathways created by logging and snow sports make the caribou's habitat much more accessible to predators, while snow vehicles and harassment by people operating them cause stress and make the caribou run away in winter, a season when energy conservation is key to their survival.
The southern mountain caribou population in B.C. and Alberta is divided into subgroups – southern, central and northern, and each is divided into local populations. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an independent government agency, considers the southern and central subgroups to be endangered.
The Valhalla Wilderness Society's petition is focused on the southern subgroup, which the federal government estimated in 2014 had 1,540 animals, although a report that accompanies the petition says that estimate is out of date and too high. The petition, addressed to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, asks the federal cabinet to issue an emergency order to the province to prohibit all logging and use of motorized vehicles to protect the 10 most-southerly local populations.
The subgroup's habitat in B.C. stretches from Prince George to the U.S. border.
Last month, the federal and B.C. governments signed a draft conservation agreement for the southern mountain caribou, but it includes a recovery plan for only the central subgroup. When the plan was announced, a news release said the intention was to expand it to the other ones.
The petition says while the conservation plan is valuable, the southern subgroup requires immediate action.
"These caribou are going to die off and the scientists have been telling them to stop this old-growth logging for 25 years," said Calvin Sandborn, legal director at the University of Victoria's environmental law centre, who helped the Valhalla Wilderness Society put together its petition.
Mr. Sandborn also criticized the B.C. government for not doing more to stop logging in caribou habitat.
Ms. McKenna was not available for an interview to respond to the group's concerns.
Laura Farquharson, general director of stewardship and regional operations with the Canadian Wildlife Service, a branch of the Environment Ministry, said the draft conservation agreement for the southern mountain caribou begins with the central subgroup "to start small and to be able to find some success and figure out how to do it."
She said responsibility is shared between Ottawa and the province.
"The federal government is really a safety net where if the provincial government – if not all the measures being taken are adequate, then there are a range of tools from agreements to orders which would prohibit activity," she said.
Chris Ritchie, director of B.C.'s provincial caribou program, said several things are already in place to protect the caribou, including maternity pens to aid birth and survival of calves, predator-reduction strategies and prohibitions on logging and snow sports over more than a million hectares of their habitat.
He also said the B.C. government plans to implement a new herd strategy.
A final conservation agreement will be released next spring.