Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett and local government leaders say the provincial government has been meeting behind closed doors with the federal government to develop a caribou recovery program agreement.
Barnett said she and other MLAs have repeatedly written letters requesting meetings to discuss the program with the government, but so far have had no luck.
“It is bad when government is not transparent,” Barnett said. “No one is opposed to rebuilding wildlife and attempting to balance the ecosystem, but the uncertainty is not helping.”
To share her frustration, Barnett hosted a meeting in Williams Lake Thursday, Dec. 27, along with Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb, 100 Mile House Mayor Mitch Campsall and Cariboo Regional District Chair Margo Wagner.
They expected maybe half a dozen people to show up, but around 50 members of the Williams Lake Powder Kings Snowmobile Club attended as well as Amy Thacker from the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association.
“I’ve worked on this issue for years throughout this region,” Barnett said. “The only way we can get anywhere is with a grassroots movement telling government we want to be included. We want to be part of the solution and part of the consultation process.”
Cobb and Wagner said they both became involved after the issue came up at the North Central Local Government Association Conference held in Fort St. John last May.
“I finally had a meeting scheduled with the federal minister’s office, but it was cancelled because the province wanted to meet with them,” Wagner said.
Pierre Dion, owner of Exeter Forest and Marine Sales Ltd. from 100 Mile House, was invited by Barnett to share his insights.
Dion has been involved with the mountain caribou recovery since caribou were red listed with the Species At Risk Act in 2000.
“We — the snowmobile groups in the area — formed the Quesnel Highlands Management Society and that group deals with caribou management issues in our particular area,” Dion said. “We had areas that were closed and the beauty of the whole management structure at the time was that we could negotiate with the MOE and discuss what areas should be closed and open.”
After 2005 the process moved to Victoria and turned into a big deal for the snowmobilers because there was no one to talk to locally, he added.
“We are here tonight because we are not getting any feedback from the government,” he said. “I’ve been through this two times before. We will get the management plan at the very end when it’s all done and it’s up for review. Then we will have the consultation process where we can write and phone in and e-mail our opinions.”
The process is flawed, he added.
“You don’t call in the consultation at the end you call it in at the beginning to find out what we can do and how do we deal with the extraordinary factors. In our particular area, it’s not just snowmobiling, it’s the logging industry, it’s the mining industry. Caribou recovery is not just a small blimp on the land base. It’s huge.”
Dion said one of the objectives of the province is to see caribou self-sustaining, which he said is unachievable.
“We cannot shut down half the province to save the caribou, we have to come up with balance somewhere.”
Kate Hewitt, stewardship technical co-ordinator with the Northern Shuswap Tribal Council, was also invited by Barnett to speak at the meeting.
“I’ve been participating in the provincial wildlife recovery strategies,” Hewitt said. “This has involved 25 First Nations representatives from all over the province to talk about major wildlife issues, including caribou. Nothing has been put into stone to date, they are still taking suggestions and we are meeting again in a month in Richmond.”
After the meeting Rick Seibert, Powder Kings vice-president, said he hopes the government does seek input on the plan.
“If they don’t there is going to be a huge rally,” he said.
“Two times the mountain caribou recovery strategy was changed in our area, and both times it happened, the consultation was after the plan was already drawn up.”
Laurie Snowball, a director with the Powder Kings told Barnett there are almost 200 members in the club now.
“Send me any information you have Donna and I will make sure I send it out to our club,” Snowball said.
Minister of Forests responds
Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, told the Tribune on Christmas Eve no final decisions on the Caribou Recovery Program have been made and nothing has been done in secret.
In April 2018 Donaldson announced the province was seeking public feedback on the Caribou Recovery Program until mid-June.
At the Union of B.C. Municipalities Conference in September Donaldson said he committed to further engagement.
“Caribou recovery was definitely a big topic at UBCM. When I spoke with many mayors and councils about caribou I said that they would be engaged before any final decisions were made. That commitment still stands.”
Donaldson said under B.C.’s legislation and regulations, the provincial government can consider a number of factors related to caribou and their rehabilitation of populations such as habitat, restoration of habitat, predator management, monitoring, research and science and using maternal penning.
He said there will be further discussions with communities, industry and the federal government in the new year about the plan.
When asked if existing allowable annual cuts will be curtailed, Donaldson said while the federal government can only consider habitat under the Species At Risk Act, the province is able to consider social and economic factors.
“That is what we are pressing at the table with the federal government,” he said.
“You can’t just consider habitat in isolation, you have to consider the social and economic impact on communities.”
Donaldson attributed activity on the land base, increased logging in some areas that has resulted in more predation, oil and gas exploration in other areas and climate change as factors in the caribou decline.
“We are part of the ecosystem in which we live and it is incumbent upon us to manage it,” he said. “The declines have been more precipitous since the early 2000s, so overall what we have to do is not only stabilize the populations but bring them back with as little social and economic interruption as possible.”
In addition to being a Species At Risk issue, caribou also fall under Canadian constitutional issues when it comes to First Nations rights to exercise their right to hunt, Donaldson said.
“The First Nations haven’t been able to hunt for caribou for many years because of the low populations.”
Donaldson said declining numbers of caribou has been an ongoing issue in B.C. for a number of years and it hasn’t been addressed.
“Now we are at where we are at and we intend to address it in a serious way so we can keep control of the situation.”