It would have come as a relief to many B.C. communities when Forests Minister Doug Donaldson told me in September his latest management plans for 20 endangered caribou herds will not require further industrial or backcountry bans.
Now I understand why Donaldson was able to make that decision after intensive study and community meetings in the Cariboo, Kootenay and Peace regions, packed with people worried about the future of their already fragile resource economies.
Plunging caribou populations are indeed a crisis, one that can be seen across Canada, all the way to the vast herds of Labrador and northern Quebec that are central to the traditional way of life of Indigenous people. That’s why the federal government is poised to invoke its species-at-risk legislation to impose further protection measures on B.C.
It’s already too late for some of the 54 B.C. herds, despite protected areas, mothers and calves captured and held in maternity pens and an escalating program to control rising wolf populations by shooting them from the air.
Donaldson acted on the latest report from ministry biologists, showing the first glimmer of hope. Three of B.C.’s largest herds in the South Peace have turned the corner from a steep decline toward extinction and are trending toward recovery. This is after the maternity penning program was extended from Kootenay herds to the South Peace and the wolf kill was stepped up over four years.
“The decrease in wolf abundance across the South Peace area has shown conclusive evidence that intensive wolf reduction has halted and reversed the declining trends of the Klinse-Za, Kennedy Siding and Quintette caribou populations,” states the B.C. report submitted to Donaldson in August.
The existing set aside areas are enormous and their effectiveness is questionable. By 2016, the area off limits to logging and road-building in South Selkirks was 2.2-million hectares, covering 95 per cent of prime mountain caribou habitat. The South Peace recovery plan covered 400,000 hectares of high-elevation winter habitat.
As the B.C. Council of Forest Industries pointed out last year, banning forestry and mining is no magic answer. Caribou are declining in Wells Gray Provincial Park north of Kamloops and in Jasper National Park in Alberta, where there has been no modern-day industrial disturbance. They’re gone from Banff National Park, which has been protected since 1885.
Another strategy should be given credit — the efforts of local snowmobile and off-road clubs to keep prime habitat off limits. This is backed up by Conservation Officer Service flights over key areas to enforce restrictions, a daunting task given the size and remoteness of regions. More people are becoming aware of the impact a single snowmobile track through deep snow can have, allowing wolves to quickly penetrate areas they could not otherwise reach.
B.C.’s southern mountain herds have range extending into the United States and this region has had human settlement and industrial activity for longer than B.C.’s northern regions. The contrast between our efforts and those south of the border was highlighted by a sad news report earlier this month in the Revelstoke Review.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally declared the whole population of southern mountain caribou endangered, months after they became locally extinct in the U.S.
The last three animals in the cross-border herd, known locally as the Grey Ghosts, were captured and relocated to protective pens north of Revelstoke in January. It is hoped they can bolster a small herd there.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media.