Darcy Peel, director of Caribou Recovery for the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, speaks to the crowd during the engagement session April 11 at the Quesnel and District Seniors’ Centre. Lindsay Chung photo

Hundreds turn out for caribou recovery engagement session in Quesnel

Since last week’s meeting, the public engagement period has been extended to May 31

Quesnel and area residents spilled out of the main hall at the Quesnel and District Seniors’ Centre and into the front foyer last Thursday night to hear about and share their feedback on two draft agreements meant to protect the southern mountain caribou.

Hundreds of people were at the South Mountain Caribou Public Engagement Session April 11, hosted by the provincial and federal governments.

The meeting, one of four held in the area last week, was meant to present information about and gather feedback on two draft agreements that have been developed under Section 11 of the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). A draft Section 11 agreement between British Columbia and Canada sets a framework for co-operation between the two governments to recover southern mountain caribou. A draft partnership agreement between B.C., Canada, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations proposes specific habitat protection and restoration measures to recover the central group herds of southern mountain caribou.

Southern mountain caribou were listed as a threatened wildlife species federally in 2003, and in May 2018, the federal minister of the Environment and Climate Change determined that southern mountain caribou were facing “imminent threats to their recovery.”

The draft Section 11 agreement applies to 21 local population units of the northern, central and southern groups of southern mountain caribou in B.C., while the draft partnership agreement applies to three local population units in the central group in B.C., near Mackenzie and Chetwynd.

At the Quesnel session, the government staff told the crowd they thought people in this area would be more interested in hearing about the Section 11 agreement than the partnership agreement, but after many speakers argued that what happens north of here affects everyone else, they shared more information about the draft partnership agreement in the second half of the evening.

During the meeting, those present heard about the two draft agreements from Alan Parkinson, Canadian Wildlife Service director general with the federal government; David Muter, executive director of the Species At Risk Program with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD); Darcy Peel, director of Caribou Recovery for FLNRORD; and Celine Davis, manager of Science and Adaptation for Watershed Science and Adaptation for the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

According to the provincial government, the southern mountain caribou population has “drastically declined” over the past 100 years and has dropped from about 2,500 animals in 1995 to about 1,540 in 15 herds today. The government says the decline of these herds is mainly due to high mortality linked to predation and disturbance in the short-term. In the long-term, southern mountain caribou are threatened by habitat fragmentation, alteration and loss of old growth forest.

In this area, there are caribou east and west of Quesnel. Herds in the Barkerville and Bowron area are declining, as are herds in the Itcha-Ilgachuz, Charlotte Alplands, Rainbows and Tweedsmuir areas. Peel says the most dramatic decline is in the Itcha-Ilgachuz herd, which has declined from about 2,800 in 2003 to about 600 in 2018.

“It’s a steep, steep decline related mostly to predation, we think, but that predation can be linked to changes in land use,” he said. “The increased pressure on caribou makes populations decline.”

Peel says 41.2 per cent of known mortality of adult caribou in the Itcha-Ilgachuz herd is caused by wolf predation, and they are starting to see the influence of cougars as well.

“Things like snowmobiles driving past them and helicopters can displace them from their preferred habitat,” he added. “They move more than they used to. They are in a caloric deficit in the winter, and any increase in energy use makes it less likely they’ll overwinter successfully.”

Many people touched on predator control and culling wolves, who prey on the caribou.

“The predators are our biggest problem when it comes to the caribou,” said one man. “Why don’t we have a bounty on some of these predators to give local people employment?”

Quesnel Coun. Ron Paull, who is also a hunter, noted he has seen a lot of signs of wolves while out hunting and snowmobiling, and recently, he was very taken aback by the number of wolf tracks he saw while snowmobiling in the Itchas. He also raised concerns about lack of consultation with local governments.

A common theme throughout the evening was concern that this engagement process was taking place now and not back when the caribou were first determined to be at risk. Many people expressed frustration that they felt the governments were coming to tell them what is going to happen, as opposed to asking for feedback.

Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty addressed the concerns around lack of communication and consultation and told the presenters that he expects the premier and the minister to be here the next time.

“The way that this has been undertaken to this point has nothing to do with reconciliation at all,” he added. “What you’ve done is pitted non-First Nations against First Nations across our province, you have pitted community against community, you have left communities out of the conversation until this late in the game. You can see by this group that’s here today, and I know there have been standing-room-only at the other events, this collaboration, this consultation, if it was truly consolation, should have taken place a year ago.

“Misinformation can be quelled by communication and talking to the stakeholders,” he added. “You can see and sense the emotion. That raw emotion comes from our North Central Local Government Association wrote a letter to the premier asking to be part of this, in the fall, nine local governments asked the premier to be part of it. When you talk about consultation, you are being disingenuous.”

Cariboo Regional District (CRD) Area B Director Barb Bachmeier invited the government representatives to a CRD board meeting, which Muter said he would be happy to do.

“We are the local government here, and we need to have representation on any addition you or the federal government make, and we should have been included from the get-go,” she said.

Other concerns that were raised numerous times included concerns about job losses and the impact this recovery plan will have on people like guide outfitters and concerns over spraying.

The chief forester for West Fraser in B.C. said he was really glad to see how much people focused in on the draft partnership agreement.

“This thing is an abysmal worry for us,” he said. “West Fraser has a mill in Chetwynd, and we have grave concerns. What’s next for us in Quesnel? I feel an agreement like that would not be good here, I feel personally that it’s a fait accompli. When do we get to engage? Is it going to be a separate process with First Nations, or do we get to work together?”

The day before the Quesnel meeting, April 10, the provincial government received a petition signed by more than 30,000 people, which called for an immediate halt to the current process, citing a lack of transparency and meaningful consultation.

Since the public engagement session took place, Premier John Horgan has announced that the Province of B.C. has appointed Blair Lekstrom as community liaison tasked with engaging residents of the Peace region on draft partnership agreements on caribou recovery.

Horgan has also extended the engagement period to May 31.

These announcements came Monday, April 15.

In his role as community liaison, Lekstrom — a former three-term MLA, former cabinet minister, long-time municipal mayor and current councillor in Dawson Creek — will consult with community leaders and local stakeholders on the draft agreements, provide input into the economic impact analysis and advise how the Province can meet its obligation to protect southern mountain caribou, while also protecting local jobs and communities.

For copies of the draft agreements, maps, general information and feedback forms, visit: https://engage.gov.bc.ca/caribou/section11agreement.

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Map of the southern mountain caribou habitat, courtesy of Province of B.C.

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