A small First Nation in northern British Columbia is calling on the federal and provincial governments to save endangered woodland caribou by taking drastic steps, including protecting key habitat, killing wolves and creating safe penning areas for calving.
Fearing the local extinction of a population that has fallen 80 per cent in 20 years, the West Moberly band has produced an action plan designed to rebuild the Klinse-Za herd to a size that can sustain hunting.
Band members stopped shooting the animals for food in 1970, after noticing a decline in numbers following the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in the 1960s. The huge reservoir created by the dam has been blamed for blocking a key caribou migration route. Road and pipeline building has further fractured habitat in the Peace River region, opening up the forest, making it easier for wolf packs to hunt.
"We are not opposed to development, but we have to have balance," said Chief Roland Willson, whose band consists of 230 members living in the Chetwynd area.
There are no estimates of the historic size of the herd, but elders talk about "a sea of caribou" on the land before industrial resource development began. By 1995 the population of the Klinse-Za herd had fallen to 190 animals – and this year just 23 caribou have been counted.
"We are out of balance here," Mr. Willson said. "You have to balance economic opportunity against our treaty rights [to harvest game]. And when you are looking at the extinction of a caribou population you have to say, 'That's enough.'"
Woodland caribou in the area were listed as a threatened species under the Species at Risk Act in 2003, and the federal government has been working on a recovery plan. The provincial government has a caribou management plan for the area, but Mr. Willson said it relies too heavily on predator control, and its goal is to maintain the current population, not rebuild it.
He said Monday the band hopes both levels of government will study the report and incorporate some or all of its proposals into the broader recovery plan.
"It's sad," he said of the collapse of the woodland caribou population, saying other herds in the Peace region are also declining. "The way things are going, caribou are going to be gone soon … and it's primarily due to a lack of planning."
The report, which was done by Scott McNay, a noted caribou scientist, says urgent action is necessary – starting with wolf control.
"Due to the critical state of the Klinse-Za herd, emergency measures are required to stabilize the herd as soon as it is biologically practicable," the report states. "Wolves are deemed the most imminent threat of mortality; direct measures to reduce wolf numbers is ranked as the highest priority action to implement."
The report also calls for "penning to protect calves during the calving season," and for the augmentation of the herd with mature, breeding animals imported from other populations. It says more winter and summer habitat should be protected, and regulations are needed to ensure development doesn't remove trees bearing lichens, a crucial winter food for caribou. The report says that if adequate steps are taken, the herd could increase to about 650 animals in 20 years, which would be large enough to support a small hunt. Mr. Willson said caribou were once a big part of the traditional diet, but West Moberly band members haven't hunted the animals for more than a generation. "I've never been able to harvest a caribou," he said. "And I'm 47." Mr. Willson said he hopes government will support the plan so people can hunt caribou once again.
The West Moberly First Nation posted the report Monday on its website and is asking for public comment for the next 60 days.