Maximum caribou disturbances already exceeded, says new joint report from provincial and federal governments

Trent Ernst, Editor

A joint Study between the Province and the Federal Government has just been released, looking at the impact on forestry, oil and gas, and mining on the local caribou population.

The key finding? The amount of disturbance of caribou habitat far outpaces the 35 percent maximum disturbance for low elevation winter range and Type 1 matrix habitat which the federal government set as the recovery strategy threshold.

This preliminary report looks specifically at three LPUs of caribou in the Tumbler Ridge area: the Pine River LPU, located northwest of Tumbler Ridge in the Mackenzie area, tucked into the area created by the Parsnip and Finlay Reaches of Williston Lake and extending south to encompass the Burnt River drainage; the Narraway LPU, which actually starts northeast of Tumbler Ridge, then extends south to encompass Kakwa Provincial Park and west to Monkman Provincial Park, and the Quintette LPU, which encompasses all the area around Tumbler Ridge, from Gwillim Lake Provincial Park to Bearhole Lake Provincial Park to Monkman Provincial Park and west to the spine of the rockies.

According to the report, in the Pine River and Quintette area, only 38 percent of low elevation habitat remains undisturbed.

Only in the Narraway LPU area does more than half the habitat remain undisturbed, at 56 percent. Still, this is far less than the target 65 percent of undisturbed habitat.

Southern mountain caribou are distributed across 38 subpopulations, comprising 24 LPUs across north central BC. Nearly all the subpopulations have undergone long-term declines in numbers, with a total population in the province estimated to be less than 6,000.

In the Central Group, which includes the three LPUs, there are only 219 individuals. One of the subpopulations in the region, the Burnt Pine subpopulation, was completely extirpated before 2015, while the other remaining subpopulations have declined by at least 50 percent over the past decade.

The only exception is the Moberly subpopulation, around Chetwynd, which has increased since 2014, likely due to a combination of maternity penning and wolf control. Still, while the population is on the rise, the current population is less than a quarter of its size twenty years ago.

Most years, more adult female caribou die than survive during the birthing season. The most common cause of adult female caribou mortality is wolf predation.

While this seems to be just the circle of life at work, some of the disturbances to the caribou habitat include roads, which allow wolves access into areas where young caribou are born. As well, over the last two decades, hunting and trapping pressure on wolves has decreased, leading to a higher population of wolves.

Because of the high level of disturbance in the Study area, all the area that remains undisturbed is considered critical habitat for caribou, which have historically been very sensitive to human disturbances in their area.

British Columbia manages activity that could impact caribou habitat, including regulatory and policy requirements. However, much of the land base is excluded from these requirements. While much of this area is not considered to be caribou habitat, the governments are looking at these areas, too.

The new Study was undertaken as part of the ongoing collaboration between the two governments. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) will use the information from the Study to help inform decisions under the Species at Risk Act, in particular in relation to whether the caribou and their critical habitat are protected.

The province will consider information presented in this Study, as well as feedback received during the public comment period, to evaluate the effectiveness of their legislation and management actions taken to date and to assess the benefits, costs, and biological/technical feasibility of additional actions that could improve progress toward meeting Canada and BC’s caribou recovery objectives.

Both governments may use this Study to provide context for land use, regulatory, and other decisions that could affect conservation and recovery of southern mountain caribou. This includes whether or not projects like the Murray River Project are approved or not.

The proposed Murray River was supposed to get its Environmental approval from the Federal Government in October, but the project was delayed for this Study, as the Minister of Environment and Climate Change decided that the Project was likely to cause “significant adverse cumulative environmental effects” and was referred to the Governor in Council.

While the province gave the project Environmental approval in October of 2015, this puts the project on hold indefinitely.

The mine, in and of itself, was not enough to cause the government’s concerns, but, when taken cumulatively with other activities in the area, including coal mining, wind energy, hydroelectric, oil and gas exploration, and other commercial activities, “the agency is of the view that in combination, the project and these activities are likely to affect migratory birds, fish and wildlife, and cause changes to the terrestrial and aquatic environment that are likely to affect current use of lands and resources for traditional activities…. The project, in combination with other physical activities that have been or will be carried out, will undermine the survival and recovery of the Quintette herd of southern mountain caribou.”

The new Study provides an overview of BC’s approach to caribou recovery, including actions aimed at stabilizing population declines in the short term, addressing legacy impacts of habitat change, and reducing future risk to caribou.

This is balanced against the economic interests and rights of existing tenure holders, Indigenous peoples, and local communities.

New protections, says the report, will need to be carefully developed “to avoid unnecessarily impacting resource development activities. As an example, the magnitude of potential impacts to mining, petroleum and natural gas, and forestry sectors within this range represent approximately $30-40 billion in capital investment alone with associated spin-offs and job creation.”

The report notes one of the biggest impact on caribou habitat is coal mining, and there are currently 629,137 ha within Central Group LPU boundaries, primarily within the Quintette LPU that have coal licences and leases on it. Still, the report notes that not all this area is at risk of habitat destruction. “Nor does the existence of tenure necessarily lead to any development or other activity that would impact caribou habitat,” says the report. “Nonetheless, areas where tenure is in place pose a higher risk of critical habitat destruction, depending upon the activity and the governing legislation.”

Oil and gas licences are also a concern. “The Montney unconventional shale gas play overlaps approximately 147,175 ha in the northeastern part of the Quintette LPU and northern part of Narraway LPU,” says the report. “Therefore, development is expected here, but the timing will be dependent on the arrival of gas markets.”

If an export market for LNG is established in the next five years, the report says, then ongoing development is expected in this area over the next 25 years, but it could also occur later.

The report also notes that wind projects may have some impact on caribou habitat.

Snowmobilers will be glad to note that recreational activities are not considered to be a widespread concern in the area. “Popular snowmobiling areas are limited in number, well established and believed to be unlikely to expand, based on preferred terrain and access constraints.”