A sweeping plan to expand caribou habitat at the expense of struggling local economies turned into the top issue for B.C. local governments gathered for their convention this week, and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson has taken steps to reassure them.
After Premier John Horgan put new forest and mining restrictions in northeast B.C. on hold for further consultations this spring, Donaldson told Black Press last week that additional protected areas in the Cariboo and Kootenay regions won’t be necessary to protect dwindling caribou herds.
And going into the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver this week, Donaldson said the province’s plan to proceed with new legislation to formalize Indigenous rights on land use doesn’t mean the needs of local governments are downgraded.
“I come from a local government background, so I’m well aware of how local governments often have a lot of on-the-ground knowledge with local first nations,” Donaldson said in an interview.
“When we as a government directly engage with first nations on a government-to-government basis, by treaties or other agreements, we will and do engage with individual local governments on their interests. If you don’t, you’re losing out on valuable relationships and experience that many local governments have created with local first nations.”
A resolution calling on the province to maintain “principles of mutual respect, consultation and cooperation” with local governments passed with little discussion Wednesday, after being endorsed by the UBCM executive as their top selection for the 2019 convention.
— Derek Cummings (@djcummings) September 25, 2019
Horgan called on Dawson Creek councillor and former MLA Blair Lekstrom to make recommendations this spring, after Peace region residents protested being shut out of talks between the province and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations on the extent of protection.
The province accepted Lekstrom’s recommendation to put a moratorium on “new high-impact forestry and mining activities” in the Peace region for two years, while consultation continues on restrictions that could shut down some forest operations.
Protection strategies have been expanded in recent years, including snowmobile restrictions and extensive forest protection zones. Despite those measures, mountain caribou herds in the Kootenays have dwindled, in some cases to extinction.
“Our analysts are looking around at the other herds that need to be protected in the province, and they feel that we have enough habitat protection measures in place related to those other herds,” Donaldson said Sept. 18. Killing wolves and protecting caribou calves in maternity pens are among strategies that have had some success.
The federal government was preparing an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act to impose new restrictions, citing climate change and habitat disturbance as key factors in the population decline. Over the past century, B.C. caribou populations have fallen from an estimated 40,000 animals to about 15,000.
A report by the Council of Forest Industries earlier this year pointed out that caribou populations have also declined in Wells Gray Provincial Park and Jasper National Park. Caribou have disappeared from Banff National Park, which has been protected from industrial activity since 1885.