Local government leaders and a group of concerned citizens are demanding a seat at the table in developing a recovery strategy for southern mountain caribou in Northeast B.C.
The provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and Environment and Climate Change Canada are developing of a pair of agreements outlining conservation and recovery measures for the central group of caribou herds in the South Peace, which have seen precipitous population declines over the years.
The agreements could have major implications for local industry and the economy, tourism, and recreational backcountry access. But Peace River Regional District leaders say there's been far too much secrecy about the agreements and no upfront consultation into their development — leaving the regional district with little clue as to what's being planned for the backyard it governs.
"We want to know what the plan is, that's the whole problem. We're not getting any kind of a straight answer from anyone; we're getting bits and pieces here and there, and different communities are getting different stories," said Brad Sperling, chair of the regional district board.
"If this is supposed to be about a federal species at risk and caribou, then why is this whole thing not front and centre in the public? We should all be concerned about a species at risk, without a doubt."
Southern mountain caribou have been listed as a threatened wildlife species under the federal Species At Risk Act since 2003. The federal government wants to recover their populations to self-sustaining levels in the region so it can support traditional Indigenous harvests guaranteed by treaty rights.
The central group of southern mountain caribou includes 12 herds stretching from Williston Lake in Northeast B.C. to Jasper, Alberta. Two herds, including the Burnt Pine herd near Chetwynd and the Banff herd near Jasper have already been extirpated.
Three other herds in the Pine River and South Peace area are around 60 animals.
The population of the Quintette herd around Tumbler Ridge was last estimated at 73, while the Narraway herd just south of Tumbler Ridge was last listed at less than 50. Three other herds near Jasper are dangerously close to being extirpated.
The province is developing a conservation agreement with the federal government under the Species At Risk Act, outlining the efforts at habitat restoration and maternity penning, and minimize land disturbances each will undertake over a five-year period.
Maternal penning has already shown success in helping one local caribou herd recover. The West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations have been running a project in the region for the Klinse-za (Moberly) herd, which used to be hundreds of animals strong but were at just 16 caribou in 2013. In 2016, the herd was brought up to around 70 animals with the help of maternal penning.
The province is also negotiating a Caribou Recovery Partnership Agreement with the federal government and West Moberly and Saulteau, which will will contain conservation and recovery measures specific to the recovery of the central group of caribou.
The specific areas to which the new partnership agreement will apply, and any limits on industrial development and recreation activities, are still being negotiated, the province said. Engagement with local governments, First Nations, industry and other stakeholders will happen before the agreements are signed, it said.
"All of these caribou recovery efforts are opportunities where existing and new partnerships with industry and community stakeholders can contribute to successful caribou recovery," said a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Strategy.
But it's the lack of upfront inclusion in the discussions and the resulting lack of transparency that's causing unrest in the area, Sperling said. The agreements have been in development for more than a year, but the regional district only recently learned of them from industry and special interest groups.
The regional district has only been getting "snippets of information," including that some 400,000 cubic metres of timber could be lost to local forestry companies, Sperling said. Such a move could have a devastating impact on the regional economy, particularly in Chetwynd where there are two mills, and see between 200 to 500 jobs lost, he said.
"That’s massive, that’s devastating to a community like Chetwynd," Sperling said.
"If this about caribou, we're all into that. But where's the science, why are they declining, what are we going to do to improve?
"We're in a huge, huge country and area. If we do look at the science and the social and economic impacts, if we do have to move over a little bit to help these caribou, so be it. But have these talks and discussions open and honest. That's how you move forward and progress, and protect the caribou."
Officials with West Moberly and Saulteau were not available for comment.
Meanwhile, a group called Concerned Citizens for Caribou Recovery has taken to Facebook to raise awareness. It's also launched an online petition to pressure the province and Ottawa to halt their negotiations on the agreements until socioeconomic studies are completed and consultations with local government and businesses takes place.
"The way we’ve seen this, the government has not consulted with anybody,” said group representative Dane Smith.
“Even our mayor, Dale Bumstead, says there is no seat at the table. If the provincial government won’t listen to our local politicians, perhaps 100,000 people of B.C. will be heard.”
An online petition has almost 5,500 signatures, and the group has seen a similar response on Facebook.
Since the group has started, Smith says the response has been exhausting, in a positive way, with support stretching from Prince George and Mackenzie to Grande Prairie in Alberta.
“People are appalled this has happened. We haven’t seen a plan and this appears to be sliding in a backdoor without any consultation,” Smith said.
“We will not sit by. Our next steps are to spread the word about this, and what the provincial government appears to be doing.”
The group has met with the regional district, the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce, and others to help underline what they are doing.
Pouce Coupe Mayor Lorraine Michetti said the answer was simple: “Bring the regional district to the table, industry, and municipalities."
In a statement, Environment and Climate Change Canada said it's committed to recovering Canada's species at risk with conservation measures based on "sound science, partnerships, and recovery planning."
"The Government is determined to put caribou on a path to recovery and comply with its obligations under the Species at Risk Act," a spokesperson said.
"The Government recognizes that meaningful change to support southern mountain caribou recovery requires changes to natural resource management practices across multiple sectors. It also recognizes the potential socio-economic implications of such changes and the need to find solutions that maximize the potential for caribou recovery, minimize effects on communities and address the concerns of Indigenous peoples."
The province wants to meet with regional district next week about the agreements, but wants the meeting held in camera and closed to the public as they involve government to government negotiations, Sperling said.
But Sperling wants the meeting open to the public, and is discussing the matter with his board colleagues.
"As local government, to ask us to go into a closed meeting and then come out closed lipped … people are going to look at us and say, 'Geez, well, we can't get an answer out of the province, now we're not getting an answer out of you,'" he said.
— with files from the Dawson Creek Mirror
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at firstname.lastname@example.org.