Evan Saugstad: Is caribou recovery really the environment vs. the economy?


Much has already been said about the state of the southern mountain caribou, or lack of, in the South Peace, their need for protection, and what some of the draft protection measures, if implemented as proposed, may or may not mean to local economies.

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Still, much information is still missing.

How I wished I could have attended the in Chetwynd and Fort St. John on April 1 and 2, but unfortunately couldn’t be there. For this article, I have tried to rely on media coverage and reports from those who did attend, as to what was said and discussed. If I get any of this wrong, I do stand to be corrected, as I’m trying to stick to what is fact, and, in some cases, what is pure politics and outright fiction.
This current caribou issue should not be allowed to become an economy versus the environment, loggers versus environmentalists, wolves versus caribou, First Nation communities versus non-First Nations communities, or any other form of us-versus-them issue.

It needs to be considered as a very complex issue that needs more time to work through and come up with some common sense, realistic, and generally acceptable solutions. It also needs to be a process where a far greater emphasis and value is paced on local inputs and local solutions. We need to move beyond blaming our past collective failures as the sole reason to immediately implement something that is not in the best interest of balancing our economic and environmental interests.

For the purpose of this article, I will refer to the proposed plans for the areas north and south of the Pine River (Highway 97), generally being southwest to north-west of Chetwynd, and containing the Moberly and former Burnt-Pine caribou herds.

Caribou in this area, like their counterparts throughout most of B.C., began their declines when moose began migrating south from the Yukon, about 150 years ago. It’s generally thought these declines were associated with moose providing year-round food source to wolves, which then allowed wolves to increase their numbers. As wolf numbers increased, they were able to prey upon more caribou as opportunities arose.

Historically, one of the caribou’s greatest protection from wolves was that they were always on the move. When wolves denned to birth and raise their pups, they could only feed upon prey that lived near their dens. As a result, wolves could catch and kill caribou near their dens, but when their food supply ran out, fewer pups survived, which limited wolf numbers.

Caribou that were not close to wolf dens could raise their young without much predation. By the time wolf pups were strong enough to travel, so too were the young caribou which increased their ability to avoid wolves and sustain their populations.

Now, in various parts of B.C., we have tried reducing wolf and moose numbers to conserve caribou. Targeting wolves has been successful in this area, as caribou populations are increasing. Reports from other areas where only moose have been reduced are not as good, and some claim caribou there are still in decline. 

Although some media reports define this as a wolf versus caribou or wolf versus industry issue, it’s not. I do get the sense that for these caribou to survive wolf management needs to be carried out, likely for years to come, irrespective of what the final outcomes are in limiting industrial access to the land base.

We as area residents all need to all stick together when it comes to wolf management. We also need to consider whether grizzly bear management should also be part of these conservation measures.

There are many gathering storm clouds trying to convince government that wolf management should not be part of a 21st Century solution. I do believe that the government’s biologist did correctly sum it up by stating predator management is a significant issue and concern for many who live in more urban settings. These people will use everything available, including political pressure, to convince government to end wolf management.

For the record, in this area, wolf populations are not in danger of extinction. The 500 wolves quoted includes all wolves shot by hunters and individuals protecting their livestock, trapped by trappers, and those shot has part of this program’s predator control measures.

Funding for ongoing predator management was quoted as an issue. Simple solution: Keep local industries alive and use some of their taxes and fees to pay for this caribou protection program. Do not rely on further government funding as we all know that can disappear with a new budget year.

Next week, more thoughts on some potential solutions that may be a bit easier to swallow for the local communities.

Evan Saugstad is a former mayor of Chetwynd, and lives in Fort St. John.  

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