Caribou recovery plan proposes resource development closures in critical habitat

A draft agreement between B.C., Ottawa, and two Treaty 8 First Nations proposes interim moratoriums and changes to resource development practices in critical caribou habitat to help recover three dwindling herds in the South Peace.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development provided details Thursday of two agreements being developed as part of recovery efforts for the southern mountain caribou in the region.

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A partnership agreement between the two governments and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations targets the Pine, Narraway and Quintette herds around Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge, and Mackenzie.

The agreement calls for protected areas and closures in high and low elevation caribou habitat, along with measures for recreation management, maternity penning, predator control, and land restoration. The closures are targeted at resource development, and not tourism and backcountry recreation, ministry officials said during a briefing Thursday morning.

No existing mining operations will be affected, but forestry and other tenure holders will be impacted, according to officials. 

The total amount of land considered for moratorium wasn't immediately available. A new committee is proposed to review ongoing industry operations and to develop better land management practices in collaboration with companies. 

Southern mountain caribou have been listed as a threatened wildlife species under the federal Species At Risk Act since 2003, two herds in the South Peace of which have already been extirpated. 

According to recent counts, there's an estimated 229 animals in five other herds in the South Peace, with an estimated 74 animals in the Quintette herd, and 26 in the Narraway herd. Those numbers are down from between 150 to 200 animals in the early 2000s.

The province has also drafted an agreement under the federal Species At Risk Act with Ottawa that outlines "broad recovery actions" and gives the province access to federal funding to support recovery efforts, officials said. The agreement sets out herd management planning that will be done collaboratively between governments, First Nations, local governments, and other industry and public stakeholders.  

A socio-economic study on the impacts of any closures has yet to be completed, and will be done collaboratively, officials said. However, the agreements would ensure the federal government doesn't unilaterally impose any closures in the region with an emergency order, and without a study of the socio-economic impacts, officials said.

Public town halls on the caribou recovery plan is expected to roll out in April. The province has launched a website soliciting public feedback in the meantime, at https://engage.gov.bc.ca/caribou.

The agreements do not set out snowmobile closures. Snowmobilers will be consulted on management practices in early May, officials said.

Minister Doug Donaldson is expected to comment on the two agreements later today.

Both the B.C. and federal cabinets will decide by summer whether to sign the agreements.

The province has committed $47 million over five years for caribou recovery efforts. Canada has committed to funding recovery efforts through a three-year agreement worth around $5 million.

More to come.

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

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