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B.C.'s Plan to Protect Endangered Caribou Is Flawed

05/22/2015 05:43 EDT | Updated 05/22/2016 05:59 EDT
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Un fr:Renne | renne , aussi appelé fr:Renne | caribou (Rangifer tarandus) dans la vallée du fr:Kebnekaise | Kebnekaise , dans les fr:Alpes ...

B.C. will continue to kill wolves for at least a decade in an attempt to save endangered caribou according to government documents released this week -- but new research re-confirms that caribou declines are primarily caused by industrial development.

The province recently finished the first year of its province-wide wolf cull, which resulted in the killing of 84 animals. But documents released to the Globe and Mail indicate the B.C. government is aware habitat destruction is at the root of declining caribou populations.

"Ultimately, as long as the habitat conditions on and adjacent to caribou ranges remain heavily modified by industrial activities, it is unlikely that any self-sustaining caribou populations will be able to exist in the South Peace [region]," the document says.

New research published in the journal Biological Conservation re-enforces that view.

In their paper, "Witnessing Extinction," Chris Johnson and Libby Ehlers from the University of Northern B.C. and Dale Seip from the B.C. Ministry of Environment found that the cumulative impacts of roads, mining, oil and gas development and forestry have resulted in a 65.9 per cent loss of caribou habitat.

The study concludes that in B.C., this level of habitat restoration and protection is unlikely.

"At current rates of habitat loss and population decline, these caribou, a significant component of Canada's biodiversity, are unlikely to persist. Although the factors leading to extinction are complex, the cumulative impacts of industrial development are a correlative if not causative factor," the authors conclude.

According to the federal government's caribou recovery strategy, provinces are expected to meet a target of 65 per cent undisturbed caribou habitat in all ranges by 2017.

Wolf Cull Ignores Main Drivers of Caribou Decline

Experts say the wolf cull program is a band-aid solution, which overlooks the real drivers of caribou decline.

The real problem is much less exciting than wolves -- it's shrubs, according to Robert Serrouya, of the Columbia Caribou Research Project and researcher with the University of Alberta.

Shrubs -- left to grow in areas that have been logged -- provide prime habitat for species such as moose and deer, which in turn compete for habitat with caribou and inflate wolf populations. These species are referred to as "alternate prey."

Serrouya is advancing research that could minimize the killing of wolves and transform caribou recovery in the province: alternate prey management.

By suppressing moose and deer populations, wolf numbers may naturally decline, Serrouya said. He added that killing more populous species that are commonly hunted for food, such as moose, deer and elk, may be received more favourably by the public than the wolf cull, which has received widespread criticism.

"The thing about prey reduction is you have to do much less predator control because you've reduced their food source, they won't breed as much or colonize an area as much because you've reduced their resource," he said.

Industrial Impacts in B.C. Growing

But other experts argue even killing off other prey species such as moose or deer won't help much if the B.C. government doesn't slow the province's industrialization.

Paul Paquet, a wolf biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said the killing of wolves or other prey species to save caribou while ignoring habitat loss is not only misguided, but unethical.

"It's really frustrating, the wolf cull really creates a moral dilemma for people," he said. "It's useless to pursue without aggressive measures to protect habitat."

"Habit, habitat. That's been repeated since the '70s and '80s," he said.

Paquet said the B.C. government put a "totally arbitrary time frame" on the wolf cull, while contributing to the rapid industrialization of the north.

He pointed to the recent study showing a strong correlation between caribou declines and industrial development in B.C.'s South Peace region.

"At Raincoast, that's been our primary point -- to protect what we have, hold the line on what habitat remains."

"I Want To Eat a Caribou Before I Die"

Roland Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nation in northeast B.C., said caribou declines have transformed his traditional way of life.

Speaking at a recent event in Victoria, Willson said the proposed Site C dam will mean further damage to caribou herds, which his tribe is working hard to protect.

"I want to eat a caribou before I die," he said, talking about a book he wrote with the same title.

"We've put together a study on what we're losing by not being able to harvest caribou any more," he said, noting caribou is essential to traditional practices involving food preparation, tool and cloth making and art.

Willson said his people have had to go to court to fight against industrial development, especially mining, in caribou habitat.

"Canada has a Species at Risk Act that B.C. isn't listening to," he said. "B.C. isn't following its own best practices."

Willson said he isn't against the province's wolf cull in principle, adding the West Moberly people have long "managed the number of wolf packs."

Willson added he isn't opposed to industry, but wants the province to find a way to balance development with treaty rights that protect his nation's right to traditional hunting practices.

"We don't want to just look at the caribou. We want to eat them."

The West Moberly First Nation is located in Treaty 8 territory in B.C. where there are thousands of oil and gas wells. The Treaty 8 Tribal Association is currently working on a strategic assessment of the cumulative impacts of development in the territory, which covers 279,000 square kilometres in B.C.

Too Late for Habitat Focus?

For Serrouya, the opportunity to focus solely on habitat protect might have been missed years ago.

"We used to do so much forestry in this province," he said. "It's much better now with large protected areas."

He added that protection of old-growth forests has helped limit habitat loss and he argued B.C.'s caribou decline "isn't necessarily being led by sprawling oil and gas activity."

"It's the legacy of intensive logging," he said. "Unfortunately we can't speed up the regrowth of deforested areas."

"The key factor with all of this is, if you don't do anything with the population side -- the caribou, moose, deer, wolves -- and you just focus on habitat protection, you'll lose the caribou," he said.

Paquet disagrees, however.

"Habitat protection has always been the most important part of this story," he said, adding the removal of top predators, such as wolves, can be damaging for complex ecosystems in the long term.

"I think a lot of it is solvable," Paquet said. "But it means full protection of their critical habitat, to hold the line there and reestablish them as their populations increase."

"For that you need more critical habitat and less rampant industrial development. But will that ever happen in B.C.?"

This article originally appeared on DeSmog Canada.

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