When hunters get mad, politicians jump.
That fact was on display at a packed town hall meeting on backcountry access in Fort St. John Saturday.
Nearly 300 hunters, anglers and other backcountry users came to hear from government officials and critics on land transfers to First Nations impacted by the Site C dam.
While details on the confidential negotiations are few, there are fears the transfers could privatize access to the Upper Halfway Valley, the Peace-Moberly Tract and other popular recreation areas.
While he could give few details on what lands were being considered, Peace River North MLA Pat Pimm said he would push for unimpeded access to Crown land adjacent to parcels deeded to First Nations.
"One of the commitments that I've been given (by government) is access is not going to be denied," he said. "We're not going to be denying access anywhere around the province to the backcountry, to recreation country. That'd better be a condition that sticks as far as I'm concerned."
Last week, Energy Minister Bill Bennett told the Alaska Highway News his government is looking at new ways of including local input on First Nations land transfers.
However, he stressed that the Constitution insists negotiations between the Crown and aboriginal groups be "nation-to-nation"—meaning those negotiations aren't subject to public consultation.
Critics also attended the meeting, including Kootenay West NDP MLA Katrine Conroy, who called government policy on wildlife allocations and land negotiations "divisive."
Moose plan criticized
Another hunting issue tied in with Site C is the B.C. government's plan to manage moose populations in Northeast B.C..
Jesse Zeman of the BC Wildlife Federation criticized the plan at Saturday's meeting, saying government needs a strategy to recover moose populations in the northeast.
He likened the current policy to dividing up pieces of a steadily shrinking pie.
"You can change the way you divvy up the pieces, or you can try to make the pie bigger."
In some cases, that has meant allocating a larger share of the moose hunt to aboriginal
"We call it 'managing to zero.' You can call it a management plan, but really all we're doing is making sure hunting isn't the reason populations are in decline."
Among the reasons for that decline is land clearing for resource development, which creates ideal hunting grounds for wolves and other predators. Zeman added that wildfire management has reduced the size of burns where moose and other ungulates thrive.
He also said the government is underestimating the impact Site C will have on moose, deer and elk
The Joint Review Panel appointed to review the project agreed with BC Hydro that Site C was "not likely" to have "significant adverse effects" on those populations.
However, Zeman said an independent study by the Wildlife Federation found otherwise.
"If you talk about it in the context of all of B.C., there probably aren't significant adverse effects," he said.
"But if you look into an area like the Peace River Valley—you create a large (dam) on some of the best habitat in B.C., you're going to have a significant impact on wildlife populations. There's no way around that."
A 1975 study on the impact of the W.A.C. Bennett dam on moose found populations dropped from 12,500 to 4,000 due to habitat loss and drownings, Zeman said.
Site C will cost around $8.8 billion and flood around 83 kilometres of the Peace River Valley, including traditional territory belonging to First Nations.