As ubiquitously Canadian as the polar bear and the beaver, the caribou—the iconic face of the Canadian quarter—is under threat in British Columbia. More than half of BC’s caribou herds are facing an imminent threat to their survival and the provincial government has been forced into action.

In March 2019, after working closely with the federal government, the provincial government released two draft plans for caribou protection—one for the southern mountain caribou and one for the central mountain caribou.  The draft plans are currently going through a public consultation period until the end of April, with the long-term caribou conservation plan expected to be finalized by summer 2019.

Government intervention

Because the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada declared an imminent threat to the recovery of caribou under the federal Species at Risk Act, the federal government has the power to intervene on land management in BC by issuing an emergency order and completely closing off caribou habitat if the province were not taking appropriate steps to address the threat to the caribou population.

According to Rob Stevens, Vice President, Regulatory and Technical Policy for AME, that is not an option the federal government wants to exercise. “Obviously they don’t want to do that,” Stevens says, “That would be a huge federal-provincial issue that wouldn’t be deemed positively. And it’s also not likely to result in a better outcome for caribou and land users than one that can be developed cooperatively.”

Caribou at risk

The southern mountain herds in eastern BC have declined by more than half since the mid-90s, dropping from 2500 animals to 1200 today. The situation is much more dire for the central mountain herds in the Peace region, which have to dropped by nearly 75 per cent, going from around 800 animals in the early 2000s to their current population of just 219.

Habitat destruction and disturbance and over predation are the greatest threats to BC’s caribou populations. Caribou suffer from habitat destruction through direct displacement, reduced food sources and increased predator densities. Young, regenerating forests attract elk, moose and deer, which in turn attract wolves that feed on the caribou.

Cut blocks, seismic lines and roads affect how predators use the landscape, giving wolves easier access to caribou habitat, resulting in increased encounters between predators and caribou.

Draft plans

Important recovery measures outlined in the plans include habitat protection and restoration, herd plans, predator and primary prey management, recreation management and maternal penning and captive breeding programs. Measures that could affect mineral exploration include changing local population unit boundaries, increasing caribou habitat, reducing habitat disturbance and implementing reserves under the Mineral Tenure Act.

The detailed draft conservation plan for the central mountain herd is a unique collaborative agreement between the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations and the federal and provincial governments.

Within the plan, designated sustainable resource activity areas make allowances for existing coal mining operations but require new developments to submit detailed caribou assessment and mitigation plans for review by a committee of representatives from the four governments. A moratorium on mineral exploration and resource development will also be placed on a large area of high-elevation habitat.

Going forward

It is possible other detailed collaborative agreements will be reached for areas now covered by the more general southern mountain plan; however, balancing sufficient caribou protection with economic and social needs and usage will be a definite challenge going forward. According to Stevens, it is important for stakeholders to consider “what are the opportunities to looking at collaborative approaches with industry and government or first nation in terms of addressing some of these challenges? It can be very easy to say, let’s just shut everything down, but that has a huge impact as well.”

While a relatively limited number of claim holders will be affected by the moratorium imposed in the central mountain plan, regions such as the West Kootenays would see a much greater impact on mineral exploration. “If they were to put a similar sort of moratorium on areas of the West Kootenays it could have a significant impact on existing claim holders and the kind of work that’s undertaken,” Stevens says.

However, the mineral exploration industry is committed to finding a way to coexist with the caribou. “Going forward, AME is going to be quite involved in the discussions about what’s going to happen to all of these other areas where caribou were present, what the land use restrictions will be and how we can ensure that mineral exploration and caribou can coexist,” said Stevens, “We will spend quite a bit of time working with the province to make sure that they understand what the impact would be to mineral exploration.”

Promising Results

During planning for the potential 2014 restart of the Quintette coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, Teck became involved in caribou protection and recovery efforts aimed at local caribou populations including the declining Klinse-Za and Scott East herds. In addition to creating a comprehensive caribou mitigation and monitoring plan for the mine that would minimize impacts on caribou, Teck also took the lead in creating a regional collaborative committee involving the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations, government regulators, other industry players such as West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd. and special interest groups. Together, this group constructed the Klinse-Za maternal penning project near Chetwynd. One of two maternal penning projects in BC, the program has seen some success, with the population of the Klinse-Za herd almost tripling in four years. In 2018, the population of the herd had increased to 67 members and 12 cows, two juveniles and nine calves were successfully released from the maternity pen.

As the plans progress into actions, AME will keep their members* updated.  See AME’s full summary of S11 Conservation and Partnership Agreements for the Southern Mountain Caribou.

* Learn more about AME Membership and how to become a member.