From reduced snowmobiling to continued wolf cull, wide range of options in B.C.'s caribou protection plans

After months of controversy, the B.C. government has released two draft plans to protect endangered woodland caribou in the province.

The province is now seeking public feedback on a wide range of options that include closing protected areas to snowmobiles, a review of the ongoing practice of killing wolves and how much to limit the development of future mines and forestry operations that could hinder the animal's recovery.

One draft plan, which covers southern mountain caribou herds from the Kootenays to just north of Prince George, was negotiated between the province and the federal government.

The second plan, focused on central mountain herds in northeastern B.C., includes the West Moberly and Salteau First Nations, whose leaders praised the government for their approach to discussions.

"This is a real powerful moment in history, and it is a turning point for B.C., Canada and First Nations," said Salteau First Nation Chief Ken Cameron.

"Working together to save a species from extinction — this is real, and we can do this."

Rapid decline

According to provincial figures, southern mountain herds have declined from 2,500 animals in the mid-1990s to 1,200 today.

Central mountain herds have declined from approximately 800 animals in the early 2000s to 219 today.

In 2018, the federal government declared an "imminent threat" to caribou in B.C.

British Columbia Forest Service/Canadian Press

Speaking with reporters, B.C.'s Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Doug Donaldson emphasized the province's need to come up with a plan or risk of having one forced upon it.

"The federal government could have unilaterally imposed measures that would only consider the habitat needs of caribou and not the needs of communities," he said.

"We believe these agreements will provide a better outcome for B.C. than no agreements at all."

Economic impacts in northeastern B.C.

The negotiations have been a source of controversy in resource-dependant northeastern B.C., where local leaders have worried their economic lifelines were being discussed behind closed doors.

Chetwynd Mayor Allen Courtoreille said while he was "relieved" to finally see a copy of the plans, he is still worried a curtailment in forestry operations could deal a major blow to his community, which receives roughly 20 per cent of its revenue from local mills.

B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations

And while existing coal mines around Tumbler Ridge were specifically excluded from the protection areas, the plan could hinder future operations from starting up.

Donaldson said the province recognizes the economic impacts the plans could have on northeastern B.C., and is in the process of negotiating for financial compensation from the federal government.

Special snowmobile consultations set

Snowmobile groups in the region have also expressed concerns access to backcountry areas will be limited.

While no new restrictions are included in the draft agreements, there are plans to "identify potential conflicts" between caribou and snowmobiles through a specialized engagement process starting in May.

There are also plans to continue culling wolves through at least 2020 and to study the effects of other animals, such as cougars, bears, moose and white-tailed deer on caribou populations.

The government is accepting feedback on the plans through the Engage B.C. website until April 26.