Federal government intervention on mountain caribou issue creates uncertainty, concern for stakeholders

Caribou rut. Photo: David Moskowitz.

This article first appeared in print in the March 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

One of the only remaining subspecies to live in rugged, mountainous terrain, the future of the endangered Southern Mountain Caribou is uncertain. Efforts to promote sustainability and growth have largely been unsuccessful with Southern Mountain Caribou populations throughout B.C. continuing to experience declining herd numbers. This includes herds in the Revelstoke-Shuswap area.

In an effort to support the survival and recovery of Southern Mountain Caribou, the provincial and federal governments are entering into a joint conservation agreement through the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Under section 11 of the act, a federal minister can exercise their power to enter into an agreement with another Canadian government, organization or person to enhance the survival chances of a species at risk.

File photo: Parks Canada staff apply a satellite linked radio collar to track survival after release from the pen. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild.

Currently in draft form, the implications of the Conservation Agreement for the Southern Mountain Caribou remain largely unknown. Stakeholders and provincial government representatives say the draft agreement provides only vague details and doesn’t give an adequate timeline. Under the agreement, the initial focus on recovery is exclusive to the Central Group herds in the Pine River, Quintette, and Narraway local population units. It is likely the agreement would form a template for Southern Mountain Caribou herds, but the agreement does not include a timeline for inclusion of other local population units in the province.

Wildsight conservation assistant Eddie Petryshen said while it’s a good start, the meat of the agreement remains missing. He’d like to see a landscape approach take place rather than the current piecemeal approach.

“A lot of times these plans aren’t inclusive enough.” He said

Chris Ritchie, director of the Ministry of Forests provincial caribou program, said the agreement covers a large area and the uncertainty creates a challenge when it comes to how various industries will plan for the future. The Section 11 order for a joint agreement on Southern Mountain Caribou conservation is new for B.C. Ritchie said there has never been such an order in the province. To top that off, the federal and provincial government use different wording to describe herds and local population units.

File photo: Caribou in a maternity pen north of Revelstoke. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild

“There is terminology the federal and provincial governments have been tripping over,” said Ritchie.

Helicat Canada executive director Ian Tomm agrees the difference in terminology is problematic when it comes to moving the agreement forward. Those differences are seen in SARA’s 2014 caribou recovery strategy and the provincial governments mountain caribou recovery implementation plan. Tomm said there are differences in how the two governments define major components such as habitat and non-disturbance.

“The federal and provincial government have a very complex problem,’ said Tomm. “There are some fundamental issues around definitions.”

Despite this, Tomm says he sees the federal and provincial governments working together and making progress, albeit slow. Part of the problem, he said, is that SARA was written for a certain purpose. Now that it’s being used the issues are starting to come out. Still, the slow process is creating a growing frustration among public, user groups, and industry including heliskiing and forestry.

Stakeholder groups express concern over input process; initial focus on Central Group herd.

British Columbia Snowmobile Federation executive director Donegal Wilson said currently stakeholders are not listed as partners, meaning they are unable to provide input to the agreement. A public and stakeholder comment period on the draft agreement ended in mid-January. Wilson describes the targets in the draft agreement as aggressive and questions why there isn’t a focus on herds that are successful.

“Why are we being reactive rather than proactive?” said Wilson. “The focus should be on the herds with the highest chance of recovery.”

In its comment submission, The BC Council of Forest Industries said the agreement between the federal and provincial governments is step in the right direction, but stressed the need for striking a balance between the interests and values of all parties, including stakeholders, involved in activities in critical caribou habitat.

Volunteer Wildlife Ecologist Alex Taylor (Golder Associates) unload mother caribou in this file photo. Photo: RCRW.

Tomm said it’s likely stakeholder input is being held off until the two governments iron out the wrinkles in the draft SARA agreement.

“Stakeholder input isn’t happening yet, but I think that’s coming,” said Tomm.

For Wilson even more concerning than the lack of stakeholder input is the federal government’s choice to initially focus on the Central Herd Group. Donegal said money for the study of caribou in the Central Group herd came through a mining application and this is why that region was picked, despite caribou land-management activities in other areas of the province. Petryshen also expressed concern over the choice to have the initial group in an area where a mine received approval.

In December, the federal government gave approval for the Murray River Mining Project, run by HD Mining International, near Tumbler Ridge. A 2016 Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency report determined the project would likely cause significant adverse effects on the caribou population, and that the project, combined with other activities in the area, would undermine the survival and recovery of the Quinette local population unit of the Central Herd Group.

The future of caribou recovery in Revelstoke remains unknown

It’s too soon to know how the joint agreement on caribou conservation will impact activities in Revelstoke. Both forestry and recreational/tourism activities utilize areas in Southern Mountain Caribou habitat. In an update on its maternal penning project, Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild notes the Columbia North subpopulation, which is part of the Revelstoke-Shuswap caribou recovery planning unit, has been in decline since the 1990s. The largest subpopulation in the Revelstoke-Shuswap area of the Columbia North subpopulation dropped from more than 200 caribou in the 1990s to only 147 as of 2017.

File photo: BC Provincial Wildlife Veterinarian, Helen Schwantje, and Wildlife Veterinarian Bryan Macbeth assess health of 2 caribou, while RCRW, Parks Canada and Yucwmenlucwu staff record data and apply a satellite linked radio collar for tracking. Photo: Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild.

A large portion of caribou recovery remains focused on the winter months, particularly around winter tourism and recreation activities, which often take place near critical caribou habitat. The Revelstoke Snowmobile Club manages the Frisby Ridge closure under the provincial Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan and also provides education and outreach on Southern Mountain Caribou to snowmobilers.

Wilson said there is a need to shift focus from winter to summer, stating the majority of the mortalities take place in summer and there is no plan in place for that.

Tomm points to a difference between public recreation and tourism activities, noting tourism businesses under a tenure with an approved management plan have legal requirements for behaviour and operation. In contrast, public recreation has little say over the behaviour of individual users who may use roads logging to access areas that may be in caribou habitat.

Petryshen said, while it’s not a popular opinion, there is a need to get rid of roads and provide funding towards recovery of that habitat.

“When you eliminate roads, [you] get rid of access by humans,” he said.

Logging access roads in the Revelstoke area could potentially be impacted depending on the outcomes of the joint agreement. Ritchie said it’s likely the agreement will remove some areas from the timber harvest land base, but was unable to say what that could mean for Revelstoke’s forestry sector. The likely need for more careful planning moving forward could add additional costs. Ritchie said an example of this would be building roads away from caribou habitat.

For now, the caribou conservation joint agreement remains focused on the Central Group herd and it is unknown when the initiative will make its way to Revelstoke.