The 400-plus people in attendance at the highly anticipated meeting represented a cross-section of interests from the community: ranchers, trappers, forestry workers, guide outfitters, snowmobilers, local governments — most of whom believe they have something to lose as the two governments position to sign off as soon as possible on agreements they say are needed to protect declining caribou herds identified federally as a species at risk.
“Caribou are in tough shape,” said Darcy Peel, director of Caribou Recovery for the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
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.
“It’s been a precipitous and dramatic decline … there are no easy answers with caribou recoveries … we need community buy-in and we have to start having these tough conversations.”
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.
There are two distinctive caribou populations in the Williams Lake region; the southern group (which live in Interior wet belts and require deep snow) east of Williams Lake and the northern group (which require shallow snow and stay in low elevation pine forests during winter) in the West Chilcotin.
Caribou herds east of Williams Lake, such as those in the Bowron and Barkerville area, are declining, Peel said, with only 41 and 58 in those herds. But the Wells Gray north population (which lives around Quesnel Lake) is considered stable with a population estimate of 224.
Herds in the Itcha-Igachuz, Charlotte Alplands, Rainbows and Tweedsmuir are all northern mountain caribou populations and are in decline. The Itcha-Ilgachuz herd has declined from about 2,800 in 2003 to about 600 in 2018.
The government has shut down the legal hunt of bulls recently, but longtime Anahim Lake area residents Wanda Dorsey and Terra Hatch, who guided hunts for mature caribou bulls, said they have witnessed first-hand what is really causing the demise of caribou.
“It’s the wolves, that’s what’s changed,” said Dorsey. “They’re everywhere. It’s been going that way for 20 years.”
“But now it’s ridiculous,” added Hatch.
The women told government representatives they would like to have a say in the management of that herd which is in their backyard, and feel it can be saved.
Predation management — namely the killing of wolves — was one of the main strategies offered to help caribou recover by Dorsey, Hatch and a number of others in the crowd.
Peel noted in the Itcha-Ilgachuz herd research has shown 41.2 per cent of adult caribou mortality is caused by wolf predation. Currently ministry staff have collared 19 wolves in 10 different packs in the area to study them further.
In the Q&A period of the session, attendees fired off dozens of questions to staff, including whether or not the government was finally going to step in and support rural communities with a predation management plan.
Peel agreed, and said the government is ready to commit to many strategies, including wolf management, to save caribou.
He noted, however, other measures such as innovative silviculture work and harvest technologies, habitat restoration and increased research will also have to be employed to ensure a long-term plan is successful.
Another audience member said killing wolves needs to be done, but he wishes it didn’t.
“We actually care about the wildlife, and the wolves,” he said. “It’s a shame we have to kill so many because we mismanaged our forests.”
Curtailing how resource industries do business in rural areas was a tough sell at the caribou engagement session in Chetwynd last week, where it seems as though a caribou recovery strategy there may result in job loss in the forest industry and restriction of backcountry recreation.
In the Williams Lake area, however, much of that work had already been done through the Cariboo Chilcotin Land Use Agreement. Peel said that agreement will be followed and he reassured guests there will be no further snowmobile restrictions in the mountains. There was also no mention of further reducing the annual allowable cut due to the caribou recovery agreements.
Alan Parkinson, director general, Canadian Wildlife Service for the federal government, was also on hand at the meeting.
Under the Federal Species At Risk Act, Canada can intervene in land management through the use of an emergency order when a species is determined to be facing imminent threats to its survival or recovery. The federal government has received multiple requests for emergency orders related to caribou in B.C.
Currently several provinces are engaging in caribou recovery plans.
Parkinson said the federal government would rather work together on a caribou recovery plan that will also take into consideration the economic needs of communities and offer a collaborative approach to recovery measures.
Next steps in the process include a review of the public feedback, which can be sent in until May 3, followed by possible changes and an approval of the agreements hopefully by the summer, said Peel and Parkinson.
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.
Snowmobiling advocate Pierre Dion said he was disappointed there was no specific plan presented at the meeting and was still skeptical about the agreements.
“We don’t know what’s coming down the pike in the logging industry, backcountry recreation, ranching,” Dion said. “We all just have our fingers crossed. But this will affect everyone and it’s not going to be positive. We have to balance it with reality.”
A public meeting is also being hosted in Quesnel Thursday, April 11, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Quesnel and District Seniors’ Centre (main hall).
Story re-posted from CoastMountainNews.com. Written by Angie Mindus.