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B.C. called on to protect caribou with logging moratorium

The interim logging moratorium would apply to a huge swath of B.C. caribou habitat, from the Idaho border to the Peace region. One major forestry company said it would 'undermine the future' of its mills.
Southern mountain caribou, an ecotype of woodland caribou, have faced a federal recommendation to be listed as endangered in Canada since 2014.

A Kootenay-based conservation group is calling on British Columbia to enact an interim logging moratorium in the critical habitat of endangered mountain caribou. 

The call from Wildsight comes four years after the B.C. and federal governments signed an agreement committing to immediate and long-term actions to stabilize endangered caribou population. 

Over that time, B.C. has blown past deadlines to release recommendations that would protect the species. With one year left before the agreement expires, Wildsight says caribou habitat continues to be logged. 

“This has been been stirred by inaction,” said Wildsight’s Eddie Petryshen. “We’ve lost seven caribou herds in the last decade.”

“We’re tired of the continued plan to make plans.” 

Petryshen said the interim moratorium would last for five to 10 years — however long B.C. needed to consult First Nations as it moves to shift the province’s forestry paradigm from one focused on extracting fibre to one supporting the health of ecosystems.

“We’re talking about the entire southern group of deep snow-dwelling caribou… from the Montana-Idaho border up to the Peace,” Petryshen said. “Yeah, it's a giant area, but we're also looking at the places where habitat protection is the lowest.” 

He pointed to the Columbia North herd north of Revelstoke, B.C., where only 35 per cent of the caribou’s core critical habitat is protected and where 37 per cent of it is disturbed by logging roads and logging cut blocks. 

Woodland caribou 2
A woodland caribou and its young caught by a wildlife camera trap in northern B.C. Jonah Keim

Responding to the call for a logging moratorium, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship said in an email it has made “significant progress” recovering southern mountain caribou in the four years since signing the bilateral agreement. 

That includes implementing logging moratoriums on over 724,000 hectares of land, read the statement unattributed to any individual at the ministry. 

The ministry did not directly respond to questions over what was causing the delay in recommending protection measures and whether the government plans to adhere to the bilateral agreement before it expires next year. 

“We recognize that more is needed...” said the ministry's statement. 

Protecting caribou 'threatens viable forest sector,' says logging company

Timber companies reached by Glacier Media said interim measures to protect caribou habitat have already had a serious impact on the industry. 

A spokesperson for West Fraser said the current Caribou Protection Partnership Agreement has reduced the available timber supply in the region by 650,000 cubic metres.

“These reductions led to a mill closure in Chetwynd and threatens the existence of another,” said the spokesperson. “The reduced available timber supply, as a result of the agreement, threatens a viable forest sector in the Peace Region.” 

With two mills remaining in the region, the spokesperson said “further declines in accessible timber supply would undermine the future of these mills and the communities that depend on them.”

Pipeline construction and logging in the South Peace. Evan Saugstad

A spokesperson for the BC Council of Forest Industries (COFI) said it was unavailable to respond to Glacier Media regarding the proposed moratorium. But in a statement Friday following the release of B.C.’s 2024 budget, the industry group said a lack of fibre was already significantly impacting the industry. 

“A critical issue for the B.C. forest industry right now is declining harvest levels,” said COFI president and CEO Linda Coady in a statement. “In the last five years, harvesting on public forest lands dropped by almost half, from about 60 million cubic metres in 2018 to 35 million cubic metres in 2023.” 

Maternal penning, wolf cull helping to turn fortunes of 13 herds, says ministry

Biologists consider caribou an umbrella species, whose presence in a forested landscape reflects its overall health and improves the chances of survival for dozens of other creatures. 

In recent years, their survival has been increasingly put at risk. Industrial logging, mining, and oil and gas exploration have combined with activities like snowmobiling and heli-skiing to vastly expand the human footprint throughout caribou's B.C. range. Those activities, in turn, have helped carve up once dense forest ecosystems and opened paths so predators like wolves can more easily attack caribou.  

By 2014, those pressures had dropped the Klinse-Za herd to 16 animals, pushing the Salteau and West Moberly First Nations to launch an emergency measure that would combine mothers and calves with a neighbouring herd within protective pens. Over the coming years, the new herd numbers would climb above 120 individuals. Similar maternal penning programs have been set up in Revelstoke and the Central Selkirks.

Caribou captured from the dwindling South Selkirks and Purcells South herds captured on their way to a Revelstoke, B.C., holding facility meant to protect them from predators. Province of British Columbia

The Ministry of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship pointed to the success of those programs alongside a predator reduction program — which sends sharpshooters on helicopters to cull wolves — as helping to turn around declining population trends in 13 herds.

“We will keep working in collaboration with First Nations and with communities to make progress,” the ministry stated.

Short-term recovery actions 'will likely just delay caribou extinction'

Despite the progress, critics of the B.C. and federal governments' lack of action on protecting caribou often point to 2014. That's when the federal government released recovery strategies and critical habitat mapping for caribou. For a decade now, both have remained in draft form. 

“It's the process of delay,” said Petryshen. “The federal government hasn't lived up to their responsibilities to protect caribou and that's where we are right now. We need some action on the ground.” 

There is a growing body of evidence that government action to halt the decline of caribou populations in Western Canada is falling woefully short. In 2021, researchers from the U.S., Alberta and B.C. (including the B.C. government) joined forces to assess how protection measures had performed over the past nearly 25 years. 

In the 12 years spanning 2000 to 2012, the peer-reviewed study found caribou in B.C. and Alberta lost twice as much habitat as they gained — and by 2018, the loss of caribou habitat had accelerated.

The researchers confirmed the biggest pressure facing southern mountain caribou was logging. Boreal and northern mountain caribou, meanwhile, were most affected by forest fire.

Short-term recovery actions, such as predator reductions and translocations, “will likely just delay caribou extinction in the absence of well-considered habitat management,” the authors concluded.

“What we've learned over the years is that if we're going to recover caribou, half measures don't work.” Petryshen said. “We are in the throes of changing the forest industry, and the decision that has to be made [is]: are we gonna take out the last bits of caribou habitat? 

“Are we gonna take out the last bits of old growth and wait until there's nothing left to transition these industries?”