Wells Gray Chronicles

Doubly Endangered Species: Caribou

BC Government Actions & Infractions in
Upper Clearwater, North of Spahats Creek:
December 1977 through December 2016

Community Alert | Democracy Alert | Mountain Caribou Alert

SYNOPSIS: Broadly speaking, the story told here concerns what many see as a tragic intersection of a neoliberal worldview with the uniquely Canadian, ever-increasingly-endangered Mountain Caribou.

It’s a story that sooner or later raises a disturbing question, namely:

Is it really true that the inhabitants of one of the richest provinces in one of the wealthiest countries in the world can’t find it their hearts and investment portfolios to ensure a future for an iconic animal that asks no more than some unindustrialized space to roam in? Are we really so poorly off as that?

If the answer must be that Canada’s Mountain Caribou must die, then surely this brings into focus a second question perhaps even more disturbing:

What hope can there possibly be for all the thousands of other endangered creatures that inhabit countries materially so much poorer than ours? Are they really then doomed?

Of course this second questions automatically points to a third, even more disturbing question:

But let’s not go there.

  • Note: MoF = Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
  • Note: D.M. = District Manager.

In 1981, the British Columbia Social Credit government passed its Environment Management Act, which allowed the Minister of Environment to require “any person who proposes to do anything that would have a detrimental environmental impact” to prepare an environmental impact assessment.”

In 1994, the British Columbia NDP government passed its Environmental Assessment Act, in effect B.C.’s first-ever comprehensive Environmental Law. At the same time it also established the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) in the Ministry of Environment to oversee administration of the new law, thereby providing “an open, accountable and neutrally administered process for the assessment” of a broader range of “reviewable projects.”

In the spring of 1995, an aerial survey conducted by B.C. Ministry of Environment staff in and near southern Wells Gray Park documents an estimated 336 Mountain Caribou.

On 31 March 1996, the British Columbia NDP government established a Caribou Management Area on the western slopes of the Trophy Mountains under the Kamloops Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP).

In May 2000, the southern Mountain Caribou population was listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Photo by David Moskowitz

Between 2001 and 2005, the British Columbia Liberal government repealed, amended or replaced a wide range of environmental statutes, as well as cutting funding to environment-related ministries.

In the spring of 2002, an aerial survey conducted by B.C. Ministry of Environment caribou biologist in and near southern Wells Gray Park documents an estimated 325 Mountain Caribou, down from 336 in 1995. Nearby industrial-scale logging is widely accepted as the ultimate cause of the decline.

In May 2002, the status of the southern Mountain Caribou population was re-examined by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and confirmed as threatened. “Local herds … are generally small, increasingly isolated, and subject to multiple developments. Their range has shrunk by up to 40% and 13 of 19 herds are declining.”

On 30 May 2002, the British Columbia Liberal government repealed the 1994 Environmental Assessment Act, replacing it with its own Environmental Assessment Act as part of a broad deregulation of many environmental laws, and reducing 93 sections of the 1994 Act to 51.

Assessement by Environmental Law Centre (2010): One of the more controversial provisions in the new Act was a requirement “take into account and reflect government policy identified … by a government agency or organization responsible for the identified policy area” – in effect politicizing the environmental assessment process.

In November 2002, the British Columbia Liberal government passed its Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA), intended to help meet its target set in 2001 to eliminate one-third of all regulations.

On 31 January 2004, the BC government completed its transition from the Forest Practices Code of British Columbia Act (FPC) to the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA). Under FPC, the MoF D.M. had final authority to withhold cutting and road permits, whereas under FRPA (a professional reliance model), that authority was transferred to the logging companies themselves – and, through them, to the professional foresters, hydrologists, terrain specialists and others hired to advise them. From this point on, all logging proposals that meet an approved forest stewardship plan and respect First Nations rights and title MUST be approved.

Analysis by West Coast Environmental Law (2004): “the Forest and Range Practices Act and regulations bring in a new era of forestry deregulation which places an unprecedented degree of control over public resources in the hands of forest companies. There are inadequate checks and balances in the regulations. The potential to hold forest companies accountable is reduced by narrow definitions of terms like damage to the environment, and an increase in the defences available for non-compliance. Government itself will not have critical information necessary to diligently approve logging on public land. It has tied its own hands by imposing extraordinary restrictions on statutory decision makers, and introducing excessive red tape and bureaucracy to measures now necessary to protect the environment. The government has made a major ideological shift, stating that it intends to rely on professional foresters employed by forest companies to deliver the public interest, more than civil servants. All of this could render public and community input into forestry decisions less meaningful. Protecting the environment and maintaining community relations will be more due to the pleasure of a given forest company than a result of these regulations. Over the last decade, in many parts of the province the agencies have been stalled in implementing important conservation initiatives such as landscape level planning, wildlife habitat areas and ungulate winter range in many places in the province. The government has not ensured that these conservation measures were in place before handing over this level of responsibility and control to logging companies. The fact that regulations are now much more lax does not inevitably mean that the environment will be irreparably harmed, as that depends on how forest companies choose to act. But it does significantly increase the risk. Given the time lag that sometimes exists between forestry operations and impact, for some values it may take several years before the impacts are evident on the landscape. Overall, British Columbia has much to lose as a result of this deregulation.”

In the spring of 2004, an aerial survey conducted by B.C. Ministry of Environment staff in and near southern Wells Gray Park documents an estimated 307 Mountain Caribou, down from 325 in 2002. Nearby industrial-scale logging is widely accepted as the ultimate cause of the decline.

In the spring of 2006, an aerial survey conducted by B.C. Ministry of Environment staff in and near southern Wells Gray Park documents an estimated 242 Mountain Caribou, down from 307 in 2004. Nearby industrial-scale logging is widely accepted as the ultimate cause of the decline.

On 16 October 2007, the British Columbia Liberal government announces its BC Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan (MCRIP), which is intended to “halt the decline of mountain caribou within seven years for each Planning Unit and recover mountain caribou to 1995 population levels (2500 animals) across the mountain caribou range within 20 years in those Planning Units with greater than 10 animals.” [Note: the Wells Gray – Thompson herds are designated as Planning Unit 4A].

Analysis by Valhalla Wilderness Society (2016): The 2007 Recovery Plan for the Mountain Caribou herds of the Interior Wetbelt aimed to stop the decline of the southern herds by 2014, yet by 2014 these herds had lost 500 mountain caribou. Only 1,358 remained, and their numbers continue to decline. Predator control, maternity penning and translocations are receiving the mass of the focus and funds. In 2015, seven caribou died in pens in BC while the Revelstoke Rearing in the Wild (RCRW) for the North Columbia herd cost $367,582 for one year, and the Klinse-Za maternity penning project near Chetwynd cost nearly $1,000,000 in 2014 and 2015. In 2015, wolf killing reportedly cost BC taxpayers $500,000. However, these projects do nothing to address habitat loss and fragmentation of oldgrowth forest – the root causes of the decline.

In the spring of 2008, an aerial survey conducted by B.C. Ministry of Environment staff in and near southern Wells Gray Park documents an estimated 180 Mountain Caribou, down from 242 in 2006. Nearby industrial-scale logging is widely accepted as the ultimate cause of the decline.

In February 2009, the British Columbia liberal government under its Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan claims to have “protected approximately 2.2 million hectares of Mountain Caribou habitat from road building and logging.”

Analysis by Valhalla Wilderness Society (2010): Actually only 380,000 hectares were new protection, the rest either being already protected in parks or designated wildlife habitat, or else consisting of “modified harvest zones” subject to fragmentation. Only 77,000 hectares were located on the Timber Harvesting Land Base (THLB), i.e., 0.66% of the THLB over the mountain caribou range. Most of the 2.2 million hectares came from the “non-productive” or “inoperable” forest – forest too high or too steep to profitably log. In fact, 82.9% of the caribou reserves are high or very high elevation spruce-fir forest in caribou winter habitat, while only (12.8%) were located in low- to mid-elevation Interior Cedar-Hemlock forests, i.e., in critical spring and early winter caribou habitat.

In 2009, the British Columbia liberal government cancelled its Caribou Management Area on the western slopes of the Trophy Mountains, which had been in place under the Kamloops Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) since 31 March 1996. This results in a net gain for future logging on the Trophy Mountains and a net loss for Mountain Caribou protection.

In the spring of 2011, an aerial survey conducted by B.C. Ministry of Environment staff in and near southern Wells Gray Park documents an estimated 172 Mountain Caribou, down from 180 in 2008. Nearby industrial-scale logging is widely accepted as the ultimate cause of the decline.

On 9 July 2012, CANFOR president and CEO Don Kayne publicly summarized his company’s social license, in part stating: “CANFOR does not support actions that would overturn landscape objectives set through public planning processes unless there is full public consultation and support;” and “We will not support actions that impact parks, riparian areas or areas that provide critical habitat for species at risk, or other important environmental values such as biodiversity and old growth.”

In the spring of 2013, an aerial survey conducted by B.C. Ministry of Environment caribou biologists in and near southern Wells Gray Park documents an estimated 133 Mountain Caribou, down from 172 in 2011. Nearby industrial-scale logging is widely accepted as the ultimate cause of the decline. [Note: the 133 estimate appears in COSEWIC 2014, but is at variance with the 121 estimate given in an e-mail attachment from Kamloops caribou biologist John Surgenor to Louise Ludham-Taylor dated 19 June 2015]

In May 2014, the status of the southern Mountain Caribou population was re-examined by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and upgraded from threatened to endangered: “The current estimate for the population is 1,356 mature individuals, which has declined by at least 45% in the past three generations, and 27% since the last assessment in 2002. … Surveys have shown consistently high adult mortality and low calf recruitment, accelerating decline rates. Threats are continuing and escalating.”

On 6 June 2014, the Federal Species at Risk Public Registry posted its Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada, which complements the British Columbia Liberal government’s 2008 Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan.

Assessment by the Referral Group:On page 87 of the recovery strategy, the southern Clearwater Valley is assessed as ‘Critical Habitat for Caribou’ for the Wells Gray-Thompson Local Population Unit of the southern Mountain Caribou. The area included covers both the east and west sides of the Clearwater Valley, including areas in which MoF subsequently awarded permits for industrial-scale logging.

In the spring of 2015, an aerial survey conducted by B.C. Ministry of Environment caribou biologists in and near Wells Gray Park resulted in an estimated Mountain Caribou population of ~121 animals, i.e., down from 336 in 1995, 325 in 2002, 307 in 2004, 242 in 2006, 180 in 2008, 172 in 2011 and 133 in 2013. Industrial-scale logging in the vicinity of the park is widely accepted as the ultimate cause of the decline. [Note: the 2015 estimate is based on an incomplete survey and hence is very approximate. A request for confirmation of these figures was sent to B.C. government caribou biologist John Surgenor on 15 January 2017, but no response was received].

On 29 August 2016, the Upper Clearwater Referral Group met with Kamloops-Thompson MoF D.M. Rachael Pollard and MoF Resource Manager Rob Schweitzer. The following notes concern CANFOR’s use of Professional Reliance: (a) CANFOR’s “caribou biologist” is in fact an owl expert for with no documented online expertise with Mountain Caribou: (b) CANFOR’s hydrologist refuses to modify his prescriptions in light of deepening climate change, preferring to predict the future based on the past: and (c) CANFOR refuses to allow its terrain report to be vetted by highly regarded terrain specialists closely informed on the implications of working in volcanic settings.

Analysis by West Coast Environment Law (2004): FRPA WITH EMPHASIS ON PROFESSIONAL RELIANCE: “The requirements of FRPA are vague and involve judgments on issues that are both controvers584ial and inherently political. They involve judgments for which government must be accountable. For instance, professionals could certify that a logging plan will “without unduly reducing the supply of timber … conserve sufficient habitat for survival of a species at risk.” If regulations allow professional certification in this context, the private sector, not government, will be deciding what is needed to protect species and what constitutes an undue impact on timber supply. These requirements are simply not straightforward, non-controversial technical issues such as compliance with a building code. Government is forced to approve certified logging plans even if government officials believe the plans do not comply with the law and do not protect the environment. There is no liability regime in place to ensure professionals are accountable. While a professional association could theoretically decide to discipline a professional for outright incompetence, these powers are reserved for the most flagrant cases. In other areas where professional certification is used, fear of legal liability, in addition to the oversight of a professional body, helps to ensure that professionals are cautious and ensure compliance. For instance, engineers who wrongly approve a faulty building plan can be sued if the building collapses. However, in the context of FRPA it is far less likely that a professional forester could be held liable if a bad logging plan contributes to the extinction of a species.”

On 4 October 2016, the Federal and British Columbia Ministers of Environment announced a joint study to review the regulations in place for the protection of Southern Mountain Caribou and their habitat, and to “determine what additional steps may need to be taken by federal or provincial governments to protect and recover” these animals. The study is being conducted as part of the collaboration between Canada and British Columbia under the Canada-British Columbia Bilateral Agreement on Species at Risk.


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