Northern caribou can feel a little safer in the Peace Region after the provincial government has decided to offer more protection for the creatures.
“Our concern is with the caribou numbers dropping as quickly as they are, that some of these herds are going to disappear,” said Johnny Mikes, conservation advisor with the B.C. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
There are approximately 17,000 northern caribou that call British Columbia home, but the northern caribou in the South Peace are listed as a “threatened” species because of the declining numbers within the region.
“The habitat has to be protected at both high and low elevations and we thought that some of the elements that were announced in the government’s release was a good first step,” said Mikes.
The commitment to support the protection and recovery of northern caribou was announced by Terry Lake, minister of environment, and Steve Thompson, minister of forests, land and natural resource operations.
Though the protection plan isn’t finished, Lake feels the important parts have been started.
“About 90 per cent of the high elevation winter caribou habitat will be protected through a combination of existing and new protection,” explained Lake. “So what we’re saying is that you can only develop in only about 10 per cent of these areas.”
This means that in some cases, industries such as wind farms and mines will not be able to go into these high elevation areas, added Lake.
“Some permits will have to be given up or won’t be approved because they fall in those areas that we want to protect. It will affect some people in development, but what it importantly does is it allows other development to continue because there is great potential for mining if we do it in the right way,” Lake said.
Mikes explained that high elevation is important because it provides a place for the caribou to go to get away from predators and to be able to find food when there’s a lot of snow.
“They go onto these high mountain tops. In the wintertime, the windswept mountain top ridges have less snow on them… the snow is shallower and the caribou are able to access little bits of grass and lichen that stick out and they're able to paw through shallower snow to get to food,” noted Mikes.
The lower elevation areas are also being looked at, which may result in the closing of some resource roads that aren’t used anymore, said Lake. He explained this would prevent the habitat from being disturbed.
Currently the population of northern caribou is about 1,100 in the region. The goal of the protection plan is to increase their numbers to about 1,200 animals. It’s also hoped that this increase will be achieved within three caribou generations.
“It’s vital that this plan takes place and that it works, because without action the amount of caribou in the South Peace region is estimated to decrease by approximately 800 animals over the course of the next 20 years,” Mikes said.
Part of the plan includes working with First Nations and the natural resource industry to ensure that there is a proper balance of developing while as the same time recovering the caribou population, said Lake.
While Lake admitted that economic development is important, he explained that protecting the caribou is also important because the First Nations have an aboriginal right to hunt caribou as a part of their traditional way of life.
Both Mikes and Lake agree that the increase in industry in the Peace Region could pose a threat to northern caribou and the various herds.
“The concern with the coal mines is if they are going to be basically removing the mountain tops that quite a few of the animals and quite a few of the herds rely on to get through the wintertime… and there isn’t that habitat anymore. That’s a very, very serious problem for the caribou and it risks the extirpation of those herds,” said Mikes.
Lake added that while the government wants to make sure it is looking after the caribou, it needs to allow sustainable development to occur.
However, industrial development isn’t the only challenge that the caribou face.
“When we get development, we open up corridors sometimes for other populations of moose and deer, and then following the moose and deer comes the wolves that will prey on those species and then they will prey on the caribou as well,” explained Lake.
This increase in predators means a decrease in prey, such as northern caribou.
According to Lake, the development on the land base can open up habitat areas and make it easier for the other animals to encroach on the caribou territory.
“I know the people living [in the Peace Region] – whether they’re First Nations or other communities – want to make sure that we’re doing it in a sustainable way, and not just going in there and having a high impact on the natural landscape.”