Another caribou recovery meeting cancelled

Another meeting between governments and First Nations to discuss caribou recovery plans in Northeast B.C. has been cancelled.

The Resource Municipalities Coalition planned to host a roundtable discussion in Fort St. John on Jan. 11 to give the provincial officials and West Moberly and Saulteau leaders a chance to speak about the plan and how to balance the need for caribou recovery with the region's economy.

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"At this time, without a draft agreement in place, the federal government, provincial government prefer to not discuss this issue," the Coalition said in a news release Tuesday. 

"The West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations are willing to have an open discussion with stakeholders as soon as all sides are willing."

The Coalition was formed in 2014 to represent the interests of local governments in resource development issues. Its membership today includes Fort St. John, Taylor, Tumbler Ridge, and Mackenzie, along with a handful of local chambers of commerce.

Local politicians have been ratcheting up pressure on the province to publicize details of two agreements being developed with West Moberly and Saulteau to restore caribou populations in the region.

They say the work is being done without appropriate consultation, and have asked the process be stopped until studies are done on the socio-economic impacts caribou recovery will have on industry, tourism, and backcountry access.

The Coalition had hoped to give recommendations on how to navigate the public consultation process with local government and stakeholder groups at the Jan. 11 meeting.

"The Resource Municipalities Coalition is working to develop private members bills that focuses on process with respect to future dialogue concerning issues that impact our region and continuing to work with government, First Nations and industries to promote the interests of our communities," the Coalition said.

In December, the provincial government backed out of a meeting with the Peace River Regional District after directors refused to receive a presentation in meeting closed to the public.

Dan Rose, electoral director for the rural areas around Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge most impacted by the caribou recovery efforts, was also set to meet with the federal government about the plans in a separate meeting in Vancouver. However, the federal government cancelled at the last minute at the request of the province.

The province gave a public presentation about caribou recovery planning to the regional district in October, and has invited directors to a number of conference calls and workshops on the matter over the last year.

Southern mountain caribou have been listed as a threatened wildlife species under the federal Species At Risk Act since 2003.

Two herds, including the Burnt Pine herd near Chetwynd and the Banff herd near Jasper, have already been extirpated. According to recent counts, there's an estimated 229 animals in five other herds in the South Peace region.

The federal government has declared there to be an imminent threat to their recovery, putting pressure on the province to take action.

Saulteau First Nation has called widespread rumours of mass closures to industry and the backcountry to be untrue.

“The steps that the federal and provincial governments are thinking of taking are not going to cause mills to shut down,” Saulteau chief and council wrote in a Dec. 11 letter.

“Powder King is not getting shut down. There will not be a ban on river boating. They are not going to restrict recreational access to the bush. There may be some motor vehicle closures in some high alpine areas, but only when and where those activities pose a real threat to endangered caribou herds.”

“And there will still be mining, and forestry, and gas and pipelines, and other industries. We are part of the economy in the Peace too, and we don’t want to see economic development stop either,” the letter reads.

The province is developing a conservation agreement with the federal government under the Species At Risk Act, outlining the efforts at habitat restoration each government will undertake over a five-year period.

It's also negotiating a partnership agreement with the federal government and with Saulteau and West Moberly, which will will contain specific conservation and recovery measures.

The province says local governments and other stakeholders will be consulted before the agreements are finalized and signed. Areas to which the agreements will apply, and any restrictions on industry and recreation, are still being negotiated, it says. 

Still, the possibilty of any closures has the local forestry industry worried.

There are reportedly five zones Saulteau and West Moberly have proposed be established in the region, ranging from absolute protection and no industrial and recreational activities, to a modified harvest encompassing 440,000 hectares. That could be accomplished through a mix of provincial land use orders and the establishment of an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area.

That could lead to annual allowable cut reductions of up to 300,000 cubic metres, according to a Nov. 26 briefing note prepared by Louisiana Pacific, Conifex, West Fraser, and Canfor. However, the companies say their review suggests AAC cuts could be twice that amount.

The two First Nations want land use activities in the modified harvest areas to follow consensus-based decision making between the governments and First Nations, the briefing note reads.

The briefing note suggests both federal and provincial cabinets are poised to sign the agreements in 2019. The companies say they were promised a hard copy of the proposed agreements in October, but never received them.

The agreements are expected to serve as a template for recovering other southern mountain and northern caribou herds in the region.

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

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