B.C. government ‘draft’ documents outline early local caribou herd recovery plan direction

Draft recovery plans for each of B.C.’s 54 caribou herds provide recommendations on future management steps for the caribou herds, and are a window into the B.C.’s developing caribou recovery plans.

A woodland caribou. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild

This article first appeared in print in the March issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

A trove of B.C. government documents outline the provincial government’s developing plans for mountain caribou recovery in B.C., providing detailed, herd-specific management plans for herds across the province, including those in the Revelstoke area. The government’s new caribou recovery plans are of keen interest to those with a stake in how the backcountry is managed in the area.

The herd plan documents are “living” documents and are being live-updated on a publicly accessible B.C. government file server; written caveats on the documents note that they are preliminary plans, and are subject to change and revision. In addition, many of the documents contain missing sections, or notes indicating that wording will be updated or inserted at a later date. Nevertheless, the documents, which haven’t been reported on publicly, do provide a detailed view into what the B.C. government is developing for caribou recovery plans. The caribou recovery plans are of particular interest to a range of stakeholders in Revelstoke and B.C., including forestry, heli-skiing, CAT-skiing, snowmobiling, hunting, mining, and fossil fuel extraction. Of course, there are the multifaceted stakeholder concerns over whether the provincial government’s plans will be effective in restoring the declining mountain caribou in the Revelstoke area and elsewhere in B.C.

Some background

Mountain caribou preservation issues have been a fact of life in Revelstoke for decades. The B.C. government has been in charge of caribou recovery plans, but the dynamic of the situation changed significantly last May, when the federal Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna declared mountain caribou were facing “imminent threat” and issued an order to government to take action on the issue.

The order, under federal Species at Risk Act legislation, put pressure on the B.C. government to take immediate action to protect the threatened species. The potential ramification is that if the provincial government’s response is inadequate, the federal government could step in and enact caribou conservation measures that would have a more dramatic effect on socio-economic concerns, such as added restrictions on forestry and the backcountry recreation industry.

The recommendations to preserve “core habitat” will have different effects across the province, and are of particular interest to Revelstoke stakeholders. During the waves of caribou habitat protection enacted in 2007 and 2008, a majority of core habitat across B.C. was protected, but less so in the herd areas around Revelstoke. Many of the draft plans under scrutiny in this report call for core habitat closures to snowmobiling in the Revelstoke area. Although its definition is complex, so-called “matrix” habitat is in essence areas surrounding core habitat that caribou also use.

What do the new documents show?

The documents are divided by herd plans for each of the 54 herds across the province. (Access the document tree that contains links to all 54 herd plans here). For example, locally there are distinct plans for the Columbia North herd (see the document here) and the Frisby-Boulder-Queest herd (see the document here). There is some uniformity in the recommended actions across the province, and a number of differences. For example, for northern herds where oil and gas activity is prevalent, there are recommendations related to that industry, but not in the south, where the industry isn’t active.

The herd plans contain specific recommendations. For example, for the Frisby-Boulder-Queest herd, the draft herd plan recommends increasing old-growth forests protection in “core” habitat areas to 100% of the core habitat. The report also recommends restricting snowmobiling in all core habitat areas. For heli-skiing and CAT-skiing, the draft plan recommends maintaining “current standard operating procedures” for the ski operators.

View the Frisby-Boulder-Queest draft plan here:

A draft herd planning document for the Frisby-Boulder-Queest mountain caribou herd by Revelstoke Mountaineer on Scribd

Again for Frisby-Boulder-Queest, the plan recommends population augmentation through translocation, captive breeding, and maternal penning.

Predator and prey management is also recommended, and ongoing. The draft plans calls for periodic wolf control, and “targeted removal” of individual cougars whose habitat overlaps with caribou core habitat.

Although core and matrix habitat is defined in previous versions of woodland caribou recovery plans, such as the B.C. Species at Risk Coordination Office’s (SaRCO) plans that led to forestry and snowmobiling closures a decade ago, the Mountaineer has learned that the working definition and map-based definition of core and matrix habitat is being redefined under the current recovery plans, and is the subject of secretive negotiations between the federal government and provincial planners. In effect, the maps are being redrawn, and this could alter the boundaries of caribou restricted areas.

View the Columbia North draft plan here:

A draft herd planning document for the Columbia North mountain caribou herd by Revelstoke Mountaineer on Scribd

Who’s been involved in the behind-the-scenes lobbying?

The Revelstoke Mountaineer has sat in on one of the B.C. Caribou Recovery Program’s stakeholder teleconferences, and has received written updates from other meetings. Industry is heavily represented, with a light sprinkling of local governments and environmental organizations thrown in. On the Jan. 21 update, representatives from the B.C. Snowmobile Federation, Tolko Industries, the Association for Mineral Exploration, the Business Council of B.C., Canadian Mountain Holidays, Enbridge Pipelines, and the Imperial Metals Corporation were among the industry reps on the line. A few local governments, such as the City of Prince George, listened in; however, there were no political representatives from the Revelstoke area, such as the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District, the City of Revelstoke, nor the local MLA Doug Clovechok. Amongst the few environmental groups on the line were Wilderness Committee and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

Read the minutes from the Jan. 21 B.C. Caribou Recovery Program Stakeholders meeting here:

BC Caribou Recovery Program Stakeholders Teleconference Minutes by Revelstoke Mountaineer on Scribd

At the provincial level, lobbying on major issues such as a provincial conservation plan often doesn’t play out in the media. Instead, it happens behind the scenes in Victoria. It remains unclear at this point how stakeholder influence has shaped the developing plans.

What’s next in the process?

Leo DeGroot is a wildlife biologist for the provincial government. When the Mountaineer contacted the provincial communications reps for comment, they provided DeGroot for an interview.

He explained that the draft herd plans were being developed by outside contractors as part of the first phase of the development plans, and that the second phase will involve a review by regional biologists, who will comment on and edit the plans.

After that, the provincial authorities are planning to roll out public consultations on the draft plans. He expected the consultations to begin in the Cariboo and Chilcotin regions in a few months, and that consultations in the Columbia region would come sometime after that.

“While this process is going on, things aren’t standing still,” DeGroot said, adding there is “a lot more coming, a lot more happening.”

That, explained DeGroot, is where a significant part of the compromise process will begin. It will involve trade-offs on conservation issues, and will likely force a range of different interests to weigh in on various conservation measures.

For example, the B.C. government has reduced the number of moose in the Revelstoke Reach area by increasing the number of hunting tags made available. This has reduced the moose population south of the Mica Dam area from about 1,500 animals to 500, leaving fewer for hunters each year. (Increases in moose population also increase the number of wolves, leading to more by-catch of caribou).

Heli-skiing, forestry, and snowmobiling require large areas of land to operate successfully. How will these competing interests be balanced when decisions are being made?

DeGroot said there will be many subjects to discuss once the plans move to a public consultation phase.

The process will involve trade-offs between competing interests. “That’s always a really difficult problem because obviously you can’t listen to everyone or else you’ll never make a decision,” DeGroot said. “That’s why we have to hit the compromise in the right place.”

The controversial practice of killing wolves to protect caribou will be one such topic. Allowing more harvesting in old growth forests leads to increases in the moose population, which increases the wolf population. “Do we keep aggressively managing wolves in perpetuity?” DeGroot asked.

Recent developments in mountain caribou recovery

Early in the year, the provincial government decided to relocate the remaining two members of the South Selkirk herd and the remaining four in the Purcell South herd to the Revelstoke maternity pen. A team moved in to do the relocation on Jan. 23. One female from the South Selkirks herd was captured, and a male and female from the Purcell South herd were captured and moved to the Revelstoke maternity pen, which is located on the west shore of Lake Revelstoke. However, two remaining bulls from the Purcell South herd took shelter from helicopters under tree cover and couldn’t be caught. The government has not yet decided what to do with the remaining two bulls in the Purcell South herd, which are doomed to extirpation. A few weeks later, government scientists discovered they had also left behind a calf. The final chapter on the two southernmost herds in the province was a symbolic moment, marking the end of mountain caribou in the contiguous U.S. (the South Selkirks herd ranged across the U.S.-Canada border).

The final goal of the process

In the end, the new caribou recovery planning process is aiming at an agreement between the federal and provincial governments known as a Section 11 Multilateral Conservation Agreement. Originally, the Section 11 agreement was targeting herds in the central region of the province, but it has since been expanded to the northern and southern groups of herds, and now includes the Revelstoke area. That Section 11 agreement is currently being finalized, but is dependent on partnership agreements that include various stakeholders, including First Nations. Both the B.C. and federal governments are expected to prepare financial packages to aid with the recovery plan.

In the minutes from the Jan. 21 stakeholder update, a statement attributable to the provincial government committed to engagement prior to completion of the plan: “Nothing has been signed and we are committed to not signing any agreement until after engagement with communities, stakeholders, industry and First Nations. We want to ensure that all interested parties interests are reflected in caribou management.”

The trick with the new Section 11 agreement will be satisfying the federal partners that the plan will be sufficient to recover the caribou. When the community consultation phase opens, stakeholders will pressure the B.C. government to heed their demands, but with so many competing interests involved, satisfying everyone seems near impossible.