The Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations have partnered with the federal and provincial government to protect southern mountain caribou in northeastern B.C. in a historic agreement Friday.
The southern mountain caribou used to roam the mountainous terrain of the Peace River Region in the thousands and thousands, but the caribou population has declined significantly over the past century.
The government says the number of caribou in the province dropped from 40,000 to 15,000 animals. The southern mountain caribou population has dropped to fewer than 3,100, and the central group — which this agreement aims to protect — has dwindled to 230 animals.
The reasons for the decline are complex but include habitat destruction, climate change and industrial activities.
Friday’s agreement, which has been under negotiation for over two years, provides support to existing conservation and recovery efforts by the West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations.
It also includes a commitment to protect over 700,000 hectares of important caribou habitat, including the designation of a new, expanded protected area which will cover over 34,300 hectares around the Twin Sisters mountains area, long considered a sacred space for First Nations.
‘Powerful moment in history’
Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of environment and climate change, said the agreement had taken a lot of work to accomplish.
“This is a very good day,” he said. “Southern mountain caribou are an iconic species. They are important to Canadians, and have special significance for many Indigenous people in British Columbia.”
Saulteau Chief Ken Cameron called the agreement a “powerful moment in history” and “a turning point for B.C. and Canada and First Nations.”
“Most Canadians, and myself included, are starting to wonder if there was anything real to the word reconciliation,” said Cameron. “Today is an example that we can achieve reconciliation.”
Chief Roland Willson, of the West Moberly First Nations, said his people have deep spiritual and survival links to the caribou and now that the species is struggling to survive, the time has come to help the threatened animals.
“We are interconnected with them,” he said. “They are a part of our lives. They were there for us when we needed them. We have to be there for them now.”
Not everyone was supportive of the agreement.
The B.C. forest industry said it supports caribou recovery efforts, but the agreement will result in fewer areas to work and could hurt local economies.
“We are deeply disappointed that the separate partnership agreement signed today permanently removes a significant amount of fibre from the timber harvesting land base and creates additional operational uncertainty,” said a joint statement from the BC Council of Forest Industries and the Forest Products Association of Canada.
Some community members were concerned the plan would also restrict recreational land access — something Doug Donaldson, B.C.’s natural resources minister, said would happen.
“There’s no closures specifically in the partnership agreement on snowmobiling,” he said, adding there would be a working group that would specifically delineate where snowmobiling can occur.
Still, District of Chetwynd Mayor Allen Courtoreille said the exclusion of municipalities in the agreement has hurt.
“It just had this feeling of we didn’t matter here in the northeast according to the four governments,” Courtoreille.