The fight is ramping up across B.C. to maintain access to the backcountry which could be lost if a plan to save dwindling caribou numbers is enacted.
“This is not just our battle,” Sicamous mayor Terry Rysz said in front of council chambers packed with more than 100 people. “This is a concern for all of us.”
In the last century, the caribou population in B.C. decreased from 40,000 animals to about 15,000, according to a report published by the B.C. Caribou Recovery Program in 2018.
But the Shuswap area mayor isn’t convinced the government is only looking to protect at-risk species, calling the backcountry closure plan the most important human rights issue he may have seen in his lifetime.
Rysz joined a chorus of speakers at the Thursday evening meeting who rallied not only for the protection of caribou but the sustained right to access the backcountry for logging and recreation in the region.
“It’s not that we don’t want to see the species at risk, in this case caribou, survive, because we really do,” Rysz said. “We’d love to see that happen. There are programs in place that we can have caribou farms and whatever else and bring back caribou into the region.
“What we really have to fight for is the fact that we have the rights to access our backcountry as we are Canadian citizens. We do not want this to be taken away from us.”
Sicamous politicians and residents feel they’ve been left out of consultations that have led to two draft agreements between the province, the federal government and two First Nations that would establish additional protected areas for the at-risk species.
“They need to involve our communities. They need to involve our local people,” District of Sicamous operational manager Joe McCulloch said. He also spoke as a director of the Caribou Community Society.
“For every one person who’s not going to be here because of the impact and the closure, it affects roughly 1.2 to 1.5 people in the social and economic climate of it,” McCulloch said. “So every person that’s not here working, well that’s somebody that plays hockey or that’s someone who’s involved in the fire hall or someone who’s a volunteer for this community. So we take these things very, very seriously.”
The community can help come up with solutions to save the caribou because it has a vested interest in its survival, he said.
“It’s a common misconception that people here aren’t interested in the environment and aren’t interested in caribou,” McCulloch said. “Everybody here rely and depend on the environment. That’s why we live out in rural communities. We love rural communities and we’re part of what we believe to be the solution bringing forward to the province and bringing forward to the federal government as part of the Species at Risk Act.”
To help fight the possibility of losing access to the backcountry, the BC Snowmobiling Federation (BCSF) started a GoFundMe campaign in January with the goal of raising $100,000 toward hiring professionals like lawyers and lobbyist to protect its interests.
So far, $58,477 has been raised.
The BCSF has estimated closing the backcountry as proposed could cost the B.C. economy $800 billion.
A group called Columbia Shuswap Caribou & Communities has also started a GoFundMe page to raise funds for legal efforts against the plan.
Engagement meetings are being hosted by the province for the public to provide feedback on the draft agreements: Revelstoke Apr. 15, Nelson Apr. 16 and Nakusp Apr. 17.
A 35,000 signature petition against the closure was delivered to the legislature on Wednesday.
Several social media groups have been created to monitor the issue and share information, including Concerned Citizens for Caribou Recovery #stoptheclosure and Caribou & Communities.