'No easy solution': Governments pitch caribou plan to skeptical public in Fort St. John

A wolf cull and maternity penning program has led to increased birth rates, plummeting death rates, and rising caribou populations in the B.C. South Peace. But more needs to be done to fully help stabilize the southern mountain caribou, including restrictions on industrial development, government officials said at a town hall Tuesday.

Officials with both the B.C. and federal governments were in Fort St. John to give the public an overview of two draft agreements to protect vast tracts of caribou habitat, continue the wolf kill, and grow the successful maternity penning program in the region.

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"We got here through the way that we've managed the landscape, and we're reaping the rewards of that management on caribou," said Darcy Peel, director of the province's caribou recovery program.

"There is no easy solution here. That's the key we want to get out to people, to understand there's no solution to caribou recovery that you just flick this switch and everything will be good. This requires a lot of action at the front end, and ongoing commitment to recover caribou in order to keep them on the landscape."

Caribou numbers in the central group of the southern mountain caribou herds around Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge have dropped from between 800 to 1,000 in the 1990s, to around 230 today — a "precipitous decline," biologist Dale Seip said. While a few herds in the region have already been extirpated, the entire population likely would have been by 2020 without predator control and maternal penning starting five years ago, he said.

"We’ve been studying these caribou since 2002," Seip said, noting a radio collar program has been tracking herd movements, calving and mortality rates, and population counts.

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Biologist Dale Seip speaks at a caribou recovery town hall in Fort St. John, April 2, 2019. - Matt Preprost

The wolf cull has killed 476 wolves since the winter of 2014-15, Seip said. That's helped drop caribou mortality rates from 14% to 5%, increased calving rates from 16 per 100 animals to 25 per 100, and increased herd populations by 20%. Those numbers have been buoyed by a successful maternity pen run by West Moberly and Saulteau, where pregnant caribou cows are captured each March and penned through to late July to let the calves grow in a safe environment and give them a better chance at survival.

However, fragmented habitat conditions and growing moose populations are seeing wolf numbers bounce back each year, Seip said. "Wolf control works, but it comes with a lot of effort and it needs to be ongoing," he said.

Seasonal caribou and wolf habitat generally don't overlap — caribou use the rugged interior and high elevations of the mountains in summer as their calving range, and move out to the alpine ridges and onto boreal plateaus through the winter. Wolves live exclusively in valley bottoms during the winter, sustained largely by moose.

"Caribou are relatively safe as long as a high elevation refuge is in place," Seip said.

But industrial landscape changes over the decades have flipped the tables, Seip said, and made it easier for wolves to climb up into the alpine via roads and corridors in the summer. That's leading to more caribou deaths — around 40% of total caribou mortality each year. As industrial activity continues, it replaces old mature forest well-suited for caribou, with young forest well-suited for moose, deer, and elk, increasing those ungulate populations, as well as wolves.

"We’ve disrupted this natural predator-prey system by having industrial disturbance on the landscape," Seip said.

Which is a key plank of a draft partnership agreement between B.C., Ottawa, and the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations.

Resource restrictions

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Franco Antoniazzi, regional manager for Canfor, speaks at caribou recovery town hall in Fort St. John, April 2, 2019. - Matt Preprost

The agreement calls for the establishment of seven zones that will see varying levels of new regulatory restrictions placed on industrial development and new land protections mostly in high elevation habitats. Some of the restrictions to industry access and development would be immediate and permanent through the life of the agreement — 30 years — while others would be temporary.

The agreement calls for a small area to be set aside as a "sustainable activity area" where existing tenures in high elevation habitat can continue to proceed. However, a newly established committee would review new tenure applications in that area, said Russ Laroche of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. The committee would be comprised of B.C., Ottawa, and First Nations representatives, however, local governments and industry would not have a seat at the table.

The committee would "look at those impact assessments and mitigation plans, take information, and provide a recommendation to decision makers on whether they support the application," Laroche said.

Other areas are identified for restoration and conservation, including a major expansion of the Klinse-za Provincial Park. An area has also been set aside where West Moberly intends to apply for a woodland licence, though there are no plans to use the licence for logging, according to officials.

The agreement does include provisions that existing infrastructure and projects with an environmental assessment certificate issued before Feb. 1, 2019, would not be affected by resource development moratoriums. Major projects such as the $6.2-billion Coastal GasLink pipeline are not affected. 

However, the moratoriums are still expected to have a major impact on forestry. There will be reductions to the annual allowable cuts in the region, however, a number hasn't been determined. While the government ballparks the figure around 300,000 cubic metres, companies say it will likely be much higher than that.

Franco Antoniazzi, regional manager for Canfor, said the company has seen little consultation through the drafting of the agreement, and is studying its impacts on Canfor's operations in the region. The company employs more than 500, and contributes more than $600 million annually to the economy, Antoniazzi said.

"This could be very substantial," Antoniazzi said.

Rodger Roy, general manager for West Fraser in Chetwynd, said his company was told by the government to expect job losses in the range of 500 people, which he said would shut down either its operations or Canfor's operations. West Fraser has a $24 million annual payroll, and has invested $150 million into its Chetwynd facility in the last decade, and another $34 million into the community.

"This is a very significant issue for us and we absolutely feel left out of this process," Roy said. 

"The minister (Doug Donaldson) made the comment that he would expect, based on that cut, that we wouldn’t see more than half a shift lost in production at one of the mills. Obviously, the minister doesn’t understand the economics, and doesn't understand it's not a linear relationship between cut and operations.

"We absolutely need to be involved in an economic discussion, and it can’t be rushed. It has to be taken very carefully, and considered very carefully by the committee," he said.

The two companies, along with business leaders and local government officials, want a socio-economic study to be completed before the agreements are signed. The government said that work is just beginning, and that the results of the study will be given to government cabinet ministers as part of their decision making process.

However, Kathleen Connelly of the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce, said a socio-economic study is impossible to complete in the short timeframe between now and this summer, when the agreements are expected to be signed and put into force.

"The socio-economic impacts to our region could potentially be devastating," Connelly said.

"What we’re asking for ... is that government extend the amount of time government and citizens can respond to these concerns, that the regional district can hire legal counsel if they require it, that they can do an independent socio-economic assessment, look at yours compare that data, and make decisions that will actually allow our communities to respond in a manner that will allow them to mitigate for what is going to happen to industry — not only forestry and mining, but the small businesses that will be impacted."

Avoiding an emergency order

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A resident speaks at a caribou recovery town hall in Fort St. John, April 2, 2019. - Matt Preprost

The federal government last year declared the herds in the South Peace to be facing an imminent threat to their survival and recovery. It's been pressured by a number of environmental groups to issue an emergency order under the Species At Risk Act that would effectively shut down all industrial activity in the region.

However, government officials say the partnership agreement with West Moberly and Saulteau, as well as a separate agreement between B.C. and Canada under the Species At Risk Act would go a long way to avoid that.

Jim Webb, a policy advisor for West Moberly, said the First Nation is not directly funded by U.S. interests. However, West Moberly does belong to a number of organizations such as the Boreal Leadership Council, which does receive funding from American foundations, he said.

"Our agenda is not driven by those organizations. Our agenda is driven by this ethic of stewardship, and the life of the Dane-zaa," Webb said.

"We want caribou on the landscape the same way we want to continue a way of life partially related to caribou on the landscape. The treaty says the Crown will provide those animals, allow us to manage how we use them, and help us to protect them."

Caribou populations in the region used to number in the thousands, and were important to seasonal hunting rounds, according to traditional indigenous knowledge. However, the building of the WAC Bennett Dam on the Peace River, and the flooding of the Williston Reservoir blocked their migration routes and started the decline seen today, Webb said.

In the early 1970s, the First Nations imposed their own moratoriam on hunting the animal, Webb said.

West Moberly and Saulteau have been running a maternal pen for the Klinse-za herd for the last five years, helping to bring the herd count from the low teens into the 60s. Both agreements commit to building and expanding the maternity program as part of herd management plans for other herds in the region, including the Pine, Quintette, and Narraway.

Seip, the biologist, noted that there are substantial land protections in B.C., however, not enough to bring caribou numbers to self-sustaining population levels. That self-sustaining level is estimated at around 2,000 animals — half in B.C., and half in Alberta.

The success of the wolf cull and the maternity pen, coupled with increased habitat protections, could see caribou numbers in the region bounce back to between 800 to 1,000 within years, he said.

"You could stop all logging and industry today, and it would take decades for the habitat to recover, and you would still need predator control or other management," Seip said.

"We have a variety of management techniques, none are easy and simple to implement. It’s a very difficult question: What’s the best mix of strategies to recover these caribou populations?" 

Process, process, process

The town hall lasted four hours, most of it dedicated to fielding questions from the public.

Many who attended believe the agreements are already a done deal, and will likely see little to no changes between the draft and the finalized versions. While the agreements do allow for the boundaries of the proposed management zones to be altered based on public feedback, most who spoke called the process rushed and criticized the government for its secrecy and lack of transparency while the agreements were drafted.

"When I look at the information that was provided, notwithstanding the fact people may misuse and abuse the information, I feel the information could have been provided to us a year ago when this process started out, and let us have input along that whole process," said acting Fort St. John Mayor Gord Klassen said.

"It's not really fair for the rest of us that this was kept secret for 11 months, and then we get three weeks to comment." 

Joining Klassen at the meeting were Couns. Becky Grimsrud, Tony Zabinsky, as well as a number of planning and economic development staff from the City of Fort St. John. 

Brad Sperling, chair of the Peace River Regional District, was also in attendance, but did not speak. Coun. Dave Lueneberg and Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Young attended on behalf of the District of Taylor. West Moberly Chief Roland Willson, and Saulteau Chief Ken Cameron did not attend. MLA Dan Davies was in Victoria, and MP Bob Zimmer was in Ottawa as both houses are in session this week.

Sue Milburn, assistant deputy minister with Environment and Climate Change Canada, noted the two agreements were put together under a framework of reconciliation with indigenous people.

"It's taken quite a while to reach a stable agreement we feel is ready for review, input, and comment," Milburn said.

Others who spoke voiced concerns about the lack of ministry staffing in the region, delayed approvals for prescribed burns to help enhance wildlife habitat, and the science being used to count caribou. At one point, attendees held a mock vote, raising their hands in favour of just continuing the wolf cull in the region.

Some questions weren't even answered, to the frustration of those gathered.

One man expressed concern that southern politicians and residents were dictating how they were going to manage resource lands in the north when it's those same people driving the demand for those resources. The man asked what big cities including Ottawa, Vancouver, and Toronto would have to give up as part of the agreement. Despite a repeated call for an answer, no one from the governments did.  

Just one person spoke in support of the agreements. However, the man said the plan would not be sustainable in the long-term, as it failed to consider how climate change will alter all wildlife habitat in the region.

The man suggested it would be easier to fence off a designated tract of land for the caribou and simply become herders.

"When you start to manage wildlife, it’s not wildlife anymore. It’s just animals that you watch," the man said. 

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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