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Saving caribou herd pits conservation against jobs and industry
Published Friday, September 27, 2019 4:00PM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, May 27, 2020 1:11PM EDT
CHETWYND, B.C. -- Hidden high in the alpine forest of British Columbia’s South Peace River region is a pen protecting almost all of what remains of the female and calf population of the Klinse-za caribou herd.
The 37-acre maternity pen is a concerted final effort to save the local population from extinction.
The caribou in this region once numbered in the thousands. Recently the Klinse-za herd dwindled to less than two dozen animals. Their habitat was decimated by human disturbances like forestry, mining and recreational use of the land. The wide-open spaces created from this activity have allowed wolves to move in, increasing predation on the slow moving animal that once took refuge in the forests.
"The future of the caribou in its current state is pretty dismal. If we don't take some pretty aggressive management action we're looking at the extirpation of many of the herds around this area," said wildlife biologist Scott McNay of Wildlife Infometrics in B.C. in an interview with W5.
Working with the local West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations, McNay developed a plan to try to save the last remaining animals. Chief Ken Cameron of the Saulteau First Nations said, "I think we need to act like humans and help save them. You know, it's our duty.”
The caribou pen is designed to protect the females and calves from predators when they are most vulnerable. Once the young are strong enough, they’re released back into their natural habitat, increasing the local population slowly. However, with their habitat being destroyed all around them, a modest increase in numbers would have little impact on the caribou’s long-term survival without additional measures being implemented to protect them.
In early 2019, a proposed recovery plan, a draft partnership agreement between the governments of British Columbia and Canada, and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations, to save the caribou was made public. It would have seen the caribou’s habitat protected by strictly limiting development and industrial use of the area.
News of this agreement sent outrage through the local communities, where many residents rely on forestry, mining and industrial land use for their livelihood.
In the wake of this massive public outcry, the B.C. government hired Blair Lekstrom, formerly a B.C. Liberal cabinet minister and Dawson Creek city councillor, to bridge tensions with local communities over the plans to save the threatened herds.
“What I don’t want to see go extinct is the resource worker in our country and their families. I mean that’s the balance you try and find,” said Lekstrom.
However, finding that balance will be tough, according to Justina Ray, wildlife biologist and president of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.
“There will have to be a concerted decision by society that the jobs are more important than caribou because balancing them, and with half measures at this point, (it) will not allow caribou to recover if that’s what people want,” Ray said. “So you can’t have it both ways in many places, so we’re going to have to confront that as a society.”
In February, the draft agreement between governments, the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations was signed in Victoria.
“The caribou have been suffering for decades as their habitat is destroyed piece by piece. They need us now, all of us. This partnership agreement gives us hope. It means that help is on the way,” said Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations in a statement after the signing.
It’s a model that may prove useful to other jurisdictions in Canada facing the same environmental pressures on local caribou populations.