By: Liz Brown, Chetwynd Echo
MOBERLY LAKE – Saulteau First Nations lands manager Rick Publicover called industry members, First Nation community members and the provincial and federal government for an urgent discussion on the declining northern caribou population last week.
“Industry, government and First Nations were all important,” said Publicover. “The whole crux of the matter is how do you allow enough suitable habitat for life to occur and zones for industrial development.”
The two-day event hosted more than 100 people from First Nations, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Forests, and various forestry, mining, wind and oil and gas departments, all packed into the gymnasium at Saulteau First Nations Reserve.
The proposed objectives focused on sharing current knowledge, involving First Nations, Industry and government sectors, looking at the future of caribou and determining how the three sectors can better work together.
In spite of the lengthy objectives, Publicover’s goal seemed attainable.
“I think we’ve already achieved it. First of all getting everybody here today, having this discussion about this issue,” he said.
Ministry of Environment representative Dale Seip was one of the first to speak about his research findings.
“Many of these herds have seen dramatic declines just in recent years,” said Seip. “If you’ve got 10 per cent of adults dying, it means you have to have 10 per cent of the population being calves, otherwise you’re going to have a decline in population.”
The evidence is supported by calf recruitment not being sufficient to balance the mortality rate, he added.
The Moberly herd had not been counted since 1995 when population was at 191. Since last year, the Moberly caribou herd has declined to approximately 48.
“The Moberly calf recruitment is not that bad, but they have this ridiculously high adult mortality compared to these guys that have lower adult mortality, but also lower calf recruitment,” said Seip.
After hearing Seip cover caribou terminology, threats, and techniques to monitoring local herds, Scott McKay shared his collected research on the Williston caribou and other areas through desktop studies. McKay has a significant amount of research on caribou decline and produced a 2008 report titled “A Recovery Action Plan for Caribou Herds in North-Central B.C.”
“We’ve got a lot of intelligence in this room and we want to see how we can tap that intelligence with new ideas in terms of strategies effective for moving forward,” said Publicover.
The group also heard from Chris Ritchie from the Ministry of Forests and several key industrial players representing Walter Energy, Shell Canada, West Fraser Timber, Aeolis Wind, and more.
Issues discussed included problems associated with migratory rates and the rate of industrial development. Publicover alluded to the W.A.C. Bennett dam and its impact on caribou migration routes.
“There is a federal and provincial responsibility for developing what they call recovery plans for caribou and we want to stimulate the conversation between government, industry and First Nations,” he said.
One of the named contributing factors for the caribou decline was the increased industrial productivity.
As more industries cut roads and boundaries throughout the vast forests, herds are forced into other areas, which may include more predators. The rate of industrial development is opening the forests up to predators and forcing wolves especially into higher elevation in winter. Wolves were targeting moose, but with forestry operations increasing, they have greater access to caribou at higher elevations.
Seip reinforced protection of the lichen supply and trying to facilitate predator avoidance. And with each herd, there must be a different set of techniques to deal with the issues. Or, as Seip says, “it’s not one-size fits all.”
Caribou from windswept alpine ridges and low alpine forests require different methods of protection based on the ecology of the forest and habitat, he explained.
On the second day, the group split into three: First Nations, industry and government and discussed what kinds of strategies to implement and brainstorm how they can help reverse the decline of caribou.
“There’s been a lot of knowledge transfer just in those two presentations that we’ve heard already,” said Publicover after the first morning.
Much of the time was spent reviewing the impacts on land base from oil and gas, forestry, mining, wind energy and other land-based pressures.
“I agree with what Glenn [Auger from Spectra Energy] had said earlier just in terms of the focus really ought to be caribou,” said Enbridge spokesperson Malcom McPherson.
With varied backgrounds and goals of land use, the one goal everyone could agree on was to focus on the caribou and how to reverse the decline.
But when McPherson continued with another idea, several others including Auger and Brian Pate from West Fraser disagreed with his thought process.
“Also the other, I guess, the honey for the corporations if you will, would be if this is tied in some manner to consultation,” said McPherson.
“I know there’d probably be some push back from the First Nations but certainly that would be what bring investment to the venture,” he added. “If it’s framed that way then the money would more likely follow, which would more likely make it a reality.”
However, Auger, Pate and others seemed to think this was unproductive and it was in their best interest to act responsibly – and to involve others in what was deemed certain unnecessary consultations would slow down the process.
Most agreed the best way to act was to do what was in their realm of power and to be backed by a dedicated staff where after a month or two, the goals are still being achieved and re-evaluated.
“As we move forward here, we’re charged with the obligation to do some sort of recovery planning or some sort of management of these caribou herds,” said Seip. “This needs to be a combination of maintaining and protecting habitat.”
Publicover noted it could be an issue of timing.
“Maybe that mine or industrial development can’t go ahead right now,” he said. “Maybe it’s something you know, once the population is recovered and the areas that have been affected by current activities is functioning properly and is going to provide habitat.”
To help restore the caribou’s natural land, Publicover is working with other consulting companies to restore native plants in the area through agronomics, which involves planting an agro cultural seed mix, which prevents succession from occurring.
This ecological land restoration initiative gets “native plants put back on land base,” said Publicover. Production begins this spring and the replant area stretches between Saulteau First Nations and West Moberly First Nations.