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BC’s Caribou Recovery Plan: do we want caribou as a species to exist?

Citizens need to think hard about both sides of the issue and take the time to fully understand all that is at stake.

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"Although timber harvest is the single biggest threat to mountain caribou," he noted, "it is the most difficult to restrain without economic hardship to logging, pulp-making and saw milling communities."

From the start, environmental groups such as the Valhalla Wilderness Society pointed out that the much-touted 2.2 million hectares of protected habitat in fact preserved the status quo by including pre-existing parks, plenty of rocks and ice, clearcuts and forest patches left in between. The low-elevation forests that buffer the caribou from ungulates and wolves had valuable timber so they received less protection. Eighty-three per cent of the habitat set aside was at high elevations inaccessible or unwanted by timber companies.

In 2008, before the Caribou Recovery Plan could take effect, the provincial government capped the amount of economic impact which timber companies would sustain as a result of habitat protection: protection areas could not exceed 1% of the commercial timber harvest land base or decrease the Annual Allowable Cut (the amount of wood a timber company has licence to cut in a year). Even in some protected areas, companies can log up to 50% of the forest and apply for additional exceptions.

According to Harding, historical caribou territory was ignored, and only data from the shrunken herds was used, leading scientists to wonder what area the caribou were expected to rebound into.

Harding’s report concludes: “The continued decline of southern subpopulations is evidence that the current provincial recovery plan protections are insufficient for caribou recovery and survival.”

There is scientific debate about the report's validity for the Selkirk caribou—unique in being the only arboreal lichen eaters in the world— for whom wolves were recently culled. According to Greg Utzig, a conservation ecologist, the Science Team of which he was a part presented an option that would better protect habitat, but the province didn’t select it.

He still thinks the habitat set aside in the Selkirks is still good enough in the long run: it could support more than ten times the current population of these caribou. The problem is that the protected habitat includes relatively recent clear cuts, the kind that allows the other ungulates and wolves into areas where in the past only the caribou roamed. Once these areas regenerate over the next 50 or so years, the buffer will be restored and the caribou can bounce back. If there are any left.

In the Southern Peace, forestry continues apace. There are ample government regulations but still, according to the 2014 Science Update for the South Peace Northern Caribou Herd, “Forestry-related activities have impacted South Peace Northern Caribou and their habitat and are expected to do so into the future.”

Voluntary snowmobile bans don't work

When the 2009 recovery plan promised to manage winter recreation to protect caribou habitat, the Science Team recommended the complete closure of winter caribou habitat to snowmobiles. 

But the provincial government didn't follow the Science Team's recommended closures. Under the terms of the Memoranda of Understanding with snowmobile clubs, most areas were left open to winter recreation and the clubs promised to self-enforce to protect the areas that were closed.

According to Lee Harding, "[A]s of March, 2013, even minimal compliance with agreements by commercial recreation operators has not been achieved." Without an enforcement mechanism or budget, Lee concludes, only complete prohibition will allow caribou to thrive in their winter habitat.

Greg Utzig concurs that in the Selkirks “greater limits on snowmobiles would help the caribou herds.”

Anne Sherrod of the Valhalla Wilderness Society is more blunt: “Government policy knowingly invites snowmobile use in caribou winter habitat, and then it blames the caribou loss on the wolves.”

The media is not allowed access to government biologists but must send questions to the Public Affairs Office for BC. Regarding the South Peace, Greig Bethel, Public Affairs Officer for British Columbia, wrote, “There are no snowmobile closures in the South Peace.”

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