Over 150 people from in and around Vanderhoof engaged with representatives from the federal and provincial governments during the much anticipated Southern Mountain Caribou Community Engagement Session.
The meeting was held at the Nechako Valley Secondary School gym in Vanderhoof on April 25. Sean Fraser, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change was present at the meeting, along with Todd Doherty, MP Cariboo-Prince George, Mayor of Vanderhoof Gerry Thiessen, Fraser Lake Mayor Sarrah Storey, Nak’azdli Whut’en Hereditary Chief Peter Erickson and others.
The concerns cited by residents during the engagement session were aimed at understanding the government’s plan to conserve southern mountain caribou populations.
The intent of the meeting was to gather public feedback on two draft agreements developed under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) in the works for almost the last two years; the draft section 11 agreement between B.C. and Canada sets a framework for co-operation between the two governments to recover southern mountain caribou, and the other is a draft partnership agreement between B.C., Canada, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations which proposes specific habitat protection and restoration measures to recover the central group herds of the southern mountain caribou.
The people present at the meeting were from various backgrounds - ranchers, guide outfitters, lumber industry representatives, forestry workers and local governments who expressed concern regarding restricting industry and the economic impact of that to the community.
Sensitive to habitat change and predation, caribou numbers in B.C. have dwindled from 40,000 across the province in the 1980s to about 15,500 currently, with several sub-herds already extirpated in the North and Kootenay regions.
The delegation from the province had Darcy Peel — director of Caribou Recovery for the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, Celine Davis — Manager, Science and Adaptation for Watershed Science and Adaptation for the Environment Ministry, Alan Parkinson — director general, Canadian Wildlife Service for the federal government.
Peel said the purpose of the delegation was to take concerns from these engagement sessions back to the federal cabinet. He said during their past engagement sessions certain common themes have emerged as concerns from residents — Why are the engagement sessions happening so quickly, why is the province not considering socio-economic impacts, predator management as a solution and restricted access to the back country.
The southern mountain caribou was listed as a threatened wildlife species on Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act in 2003. The federal recovery strategy was posted on the Species at Risk Public Registry on June 3, 2014. The federal recovery strategy identifies unsustainable predation as the most significant, immediate, direct threat to the southern mountain caribou.
“Broadly these unsustainable levels of predation are the result of habitat changes, which have led to changes to predator and prey communities and direct disturbance and displacement of individual caribou,” as per a ministry of forests release.
Under the Species at Risk Act, the federal cabinet has the ability to enact orders that would protect caribou and their habitat from further development and disturbance.
Another concern voiced was the displacement of moose for caribou. Mayor Sarrah Storey also asked whether maternal breeding pens were working. She also urged for more participation from local governments on this agreement.
Peel said the province had tried moose management for caribou and it worked in one case and didn’t work in the other. He said their takeaway from that experiment was that moose management would be done very rarely and the focus would be on controlling wolves which cause the maximum harm to caribou.
The province currently has multiple predator control programs underway and are expecting three more programs by the end of the year.
Some residents suggested that grizzly bears are as big a threat to the caribou population. A guide outfitter in the audience said he had seen the bear population increase over the past few years.
Peel said even though grizzly bears kill a few caribou, the major impact is from wolves who in the winter also use snowmobile tracks to attack the herd.
Ross Lennox, plant manager at Canfor said the company wants to engage in a good, thorough consultation and want to ensure feedback is taken into account.
Peel said the province would be collaborating with industry and local governments during their herd planning process which will take place after the consultations are completed for the Section 11 agreement and the Draft Partnership Agreement.
Another resident of Vanderhoof who said he had been in the bush forever, told the listening crowd that there were other ways to log and industries needed to stop spraying.
Peter Erickson, hereditary chief of Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation said the relevance of Caribou has gone down in communities. He said, no one wants to blame anyone for the decline in caribou, but the government should put pressure on industry to change practices.
Erickson said he attended the Prince George engagement as well, where he heard someone say that they had driven their snowmobile and hadn’t seen a caribou for 30,000 kms. Erickson said he was worried that this person was more worried about restricted access to snowmobile trails and not the fact that they hadn’t seen caribou in that much distance.
“We have different interests,” Erickson added.
No one from Fort St. James council was present for the engagement session.
Mayor Thiessen said the frustration faced by people in the District was that industry is a major player. Added to that, the New Gold mine project is waiting approval from the provincial government as it is on Caribou habitat.
“We know capital and investment is mobile,” he said during the meeting.
Currently several provinces are engaging in caribou recovery plans. Next steps in the process include a review of the public feedback, which can be sent in until May 30. The deadline for public input was extended to May 30 from May 3 initially.
After that, the local work will begin with herd planning. Herd planning will include structured decision making by Indigenous peoples and stakeholders and identifying recovery activities and expected outcomes for caribou.
The last two meetings in April were held in Clearwater on April 29 and Cranbrook on April 30.
More to come
With files from Angie Mindus