Southern Mountain Caribou. Photograph By NATURE CONSERVANCY OF CANADA

The provincial government announced a draft agreement today between B.C., Ottawa, and the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations to protect caribou habitat in the South Peace.

Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, Doug Donaldson, as well as Chief Ken Cameron of Saulteau and Chief Roland Wilson of West Moberly spoke earlier today on the draft agreement they all termed “historic.Caribou recovery plan proposes resource development closures in critical habitat

“We’ve worked with Canada, the West Moberly, and the Saulteau First Nations to develop a draft agreement that protects caribou, protects jobs in the South Peace,” said Donaldson.
“Today we’re launching consultation and asking for feedback on two draft agreements to recover caribou populations, and I can’t emphasize enough that the draft agreements are historic in Canada, and aim to protect an iconic species at risk that we’ve seen drastic population decline.

“These agreements include tangible and real measures that are rooted in the best available science and traditional knowledge.”
The draft agreement targets the Pine, Narraway and Quintette herds around Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge, and Mackenzie.
“I totally believe that this is a real powerful moment in history, and it is a turning point for B.C., Canada, and First Nations people working together to save a species from extinction,” said Cameron.
“This is a fantastic opportunity we have in front of us right now. We’re out of balance. What we’re trying to do is get us back into balance,” said Wilson.
“2010, we were at 425; today, we’re at 219. And we’re trying to desperately reverse that trend.”
Work on the agreement began in May 2018.
“When the federal government issued an imminent threat status to caribou recovery across BC in May 2018, it’s their mandate in legislation that started the clock ticking on a year-long timeline before they proceeded with any cabinet decision on a unilateral order to protect the caribou habitat,” said Donaldson.
“The federal government could have unilaterally imposed measures that only considered the habitat needs of the caribou and not the need of the communities.”
The province will begin public consultations Monday, April 1, which last the first 10 days of April, visiting communities in the Peace affected including Dawson Creek, Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge, Fort St. John, as well as other communities affected like Mackenzie.
Donaldson was quick to emphasize it is a draft agreement. A socio-economic study on the impacts of the closures has yet to be completed.
“We’ve also commissioned an independent regional economic analysis to inform this process. From our perspective, the federal government must provide adequate financial compensation to mitigate economic impacts, and we’re working with them to confirm those details before a final agreement is signed,” said Donaldson.
But the clock is ticking fast, with a final agreement possible for June.
“Now that we’ve released the draft, it leaves five weeks for public engagement to receive input, that input will then be incorporated into a draft document in May, that will go to our provincial cabinet and federal cabinet for approval, I would say, in June,” said Donaldson.
Donaldson did not directly address why local municipalities were largely left out of the process, but said the information is now public.
The agreement calls for protected areas and closures for high and low elevation caribou habitat, and measures on recreation management, maternity penning, predator control, and land restoration. The closures are targeted at resource development, and not tourism and backcountry recreation, ministry officials said Thursday.
No existing mining operations will be affected, but forestry and other tenure holders will be impacted.
“The whole intent of this draft negotiated partnership agreement is to ensure the conservation and recovery of the caribou herds, that are so important to biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, but at the same time ensuring that natural resource extraction activities can continue to be part of the economy for Northeast BC,” said Donaldson.
The province has also drafted an agreement under the federal Species At Risk Act with Ottawa that outlines “broad recovery actions” and gives the province access to federal funding to support recovery efforts. Donaldson said this agreement will allow the province to work on bilateral agreements with federal government for other areas in BC.
“When signed, these agreements will provide greater long term certainty for industry and communities in the region to support a strong investment climate.”
Donaldson and Chief Wilson criticized the previous BC Liberal government on caribou protection.
“The old government ignored the need to protect caribou habitat for over a decade and kept in place a patchwork of measures that obviously failed to meet federal government standards,” said Donaldson.
“This agreement is the result of the lack of action of the previous government over the last 16 years that they were in office. The reason we’re here today is because of that, and we can’t lose sight of that,” said Wilson. “This government is trying to fix the wrongs of the previous government, and I’m glad they took on the challenge.”

In addition to the in-person public consultation, information can be found and feedback submitted online.
With files from Matt Preprost, Alaska Highway News