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Caribou conservation, LNG development lock horns

A federal plan to shore up dwindling caribou populations appears to be at odds with British Columbia’s plan to build out its nascent liquefied natural gas industry.
A federal plan to shore up dwindling caribou populations appears to be at odds with British Columbia’s plan to build out its nascent liquefied natural gas industry.

A federal plan to shore up dwindling caribou populations appears to be at odds with British Columbia’s plan to build out its nascent liquefied natural gas industry.

A provincial government briefing note obtained by the Alaska Highway News shows the federal plan to protect and restore caribou habitat will put a squeeze on resource development and exploration in B.C.

“It is well understood that the requirements outlined in the current federal recovery plan (plus any future federal actions in response to population declines) will substantially constrain resource development activities, including petroleum and natural gas (and) liquid natural gas exploration if an acceptable alternative cannot be found," states the May 2014 note prepared for Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Minister Steve Thomson.

The federal government identifies woodland caribou as a species at risk.

There are six boreal caribou herds in Northeast B.C, five of which are in the Fort Nelson area, with another herd in Fort St. John, the briefing note states. According to the government’s most up to date numbers, boreal caribou populations in B.C. and Alberta have declined by 25 per cent since 2014.

In the South Peace, the Klinse-Za herd has seen its population plummet to just 30 caribou.

In 2012, the federal government released a plan calling for 65 per cent of habitat in the area where caribou live to be protected and undisturbed, and for areas that were more than 65 per cent disturbed to be restored.

None of the six areas in northeastern B.C. were more than 65 per cent undisturbed, according to Greig Bethel, a spokesman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.

“We are dealing with a legacy of use, much of it many decades ago,” Bethel said in an email to the Alaska Highway News.

Both governments have their own plans to save the caribou, however, the federal government wants to see more habitat management actions and strikes "a different balance and weighting of risks" than the province's strategy, the 2014 briefing note states.

Since that time, the province has not fundamentally changed its strategy, though Bethel says the province will make amendments to its plan.

“We are actively exploring improved management and will be including First Nations and stakeholders in this conversation in the future,” Bethel said.

“This will result in amendments to the (provincial caribou plan).”

But it’s unclear if the province will change its strategy to match the federal one.

“B.C. is working with our federal counterparts and Alberta to promote alignment between federal and provincial recovery actions and expectations,” Bethel said when asked if the province was planning to follow federal government guidelines.

“We are looking to find ways to align the plans in a way that both supports caribou recovery and allows for responsible resource development… (The province believes) there is room for common ground in the plans that will allow for this.”

When asked if an acceptable alternative had been found, Bethel said “efforts to ensure development can happen alongside caribou recovery are ongoing.”

The province is planning a caribou count this winter, Bethel said.

For environmentalists like Craig Pettit, a director of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, the gulf between protecting caribou and developing the region’s resouces is concerning.

“My first reaction is what a crock, but that's where our government is,” he said.

“Anything that gets in the way of LNG…it's (shrugged off as) 'too bad' whether it's an endangered species or not.”

For Pettit, even the federal plan does not go far enough to help caribou, as it does not adequately prevent snowmobiles or other recreational vehicles from impacting herds.

Development and caribou simply don’t mix, he said.

“What we need to do is identify the core areas of critical habitat that the caribou are using and stop any more industrial activity in that habitat as well as commercial, recreational and mechanical recreational use,” he said.

Others were not so sure.

Brian Pate, a team member with Wildlife Infometrics—a group working on a maternity penning project to increase caribou numbers—was unsure if resource development could continue in its current form without hurting caribou numbers.

"To me (the government) just needs more planning, more upfront planning as opposed to being reactive (to industry demands)," he said. For Pate, the current land planning is about reacting to projects that the industry wants, rather than planning for what the best use for the area is.

Pate pointed to pipelines as an example. Companies can get "awfully" fixated on the plans they came forward with, and are resistant to change, he said.