John Horgan’s NDP government has appointed former Liberal MLA Blair Lekstrom as a special advisor to his government on a contentious plan to protect caribou herds in the Peace River region.
Horgan also offered a mea culpa for his government for not doing a better job of informing the public about a moratorium agreement it has struck in partnership with two First Nations in the area – an agreement that will close off areas to recreation and industrial activities like forestry.
“We, as a new government, didn’t do enough work to prepare the public for this process,” Horgan said in a press conference Monday, April 15, when he announced a four-week extension to a public consultation on a draft caribou protection plan.
The southern Mountain caribou in the Peace region have been designated “threatened” since 2003. The 15 herds of southern mountain caribou are down from 2,500 animals in the 1990s to 1,200 today, according to the provincial government's draft caribou protection plan.
Last year, the federal government directed the province to come up with a protection and recovery plan.
The Horgan government negotiated with the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations on a plan. When a draft of that plan was finally made public, citizens in the area and local governments reacted angrily over a plan that appeared to be already a fait accompli.
There have been large turnouts at public meetings, where citizens expressed anger, and a 30,000-name petition was recently handed in asking the government to scrap its plan.
Residents in the area say the plan puts jobs at risk, mainly in the forestry sector, since critical caribou habitat would be closed to industrial activities. Residents in the area also fear the areas will be closed to recreational activities, like snowmobiling, hunting, fishing and other backcountry activities.
“My biggest concern is that a region that has, by and large, worked cooperatively on a whole host of issues over many generations, is coming to confrontation over the caribou question,” Horgan said.
Residents in communities like Dawson Creek and Tumbler Ridge were given little time to react to a draft recovery plan. Horgan has now extended the consultation period. Originally scheduled to wrap up at the end of April, it has now been extended to May 31.
"I'm not naive enough to think this won't be without its challenge, premier," Lekstrom said at Monday's press conference. "And I will do my best to hear from the region to bring you back a report that is something that I believe is going to be workable to not only save the caribou, but to maintain the health of our communities."
The West Moberly and Saulteau have voluntarily placed hunting restrictions on their own people, and implemented a program in which pregnant female caribou are penned in the winter to give their young a better chance at survival. Wolf culls have also been implemented.
While that has helped, the caribou need habitat that undisturbed by human activities. But protecting both caribou and jobs is proving highly contentious.
Horgan said the province has an obligation to address the decline in the southern mountain caribou.
“These are federal laws that we will be running afoul of if we don’t take action,” Horgan said.
“We have an obligation, nation to nation, to deal with Saulteau and West Moberly,” he said. “Their constitutional rights to access caribou have been foregone by them in the interest of preserving the stocks. "The Saulteau and West Moberly have been working tenaciously for a long time to protect these animals and we have entered into a government-to-government discussion with them and now we’re entering into a broader consultation with the community.”
“I regret we didn’t start that consultation earlier. I regret we didn’t put more information before the public.”
Consultation April 30 will now go to May 31
It’s not just the Peace Region where the mountain caribou are threatened with extinction, and Horgan said the Kootenays would be the next region where protection and recovery plans will need to be implemented.