The B.C. government is pressing the pause button on new resource development in the ongoing struggle to deal with long-term caribou protection strategies in the northeast part of the province.
Premier John Horgan announced on Thursday an interim moratorium on new resource development in parts of northeastern British Columbia to provide time for engagement with affected communities and industries.
The moratorium was one of the suggestions brought forward by former B.C. Liberal minister Blair Lekstrom, who had been hired by the province to consult with the community around the caribou plan.
“Blair Lekstrom has recommended that we press the pause button on new resource development and take more time to engage with affected communities and industries, while taking necessary steps to protect caribou,” Horgan said.
“Everyone in the Peace region agrees that we need to recover our caribou herds and protect local jobs. Regrettably, this issue has divided communities and provoked sentiments that have no place in British Columbia. The only way we will make progress is by working together. We must listen and work collaboratively to find the best solution.”
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The province’s original plan to protect the province’s dwindling caribou population received significant pushback from people in the Interior, who said it would lead to job losses in the forestry sector.
The B.C. government announced in March it had reached two draft agreements with the federal government and two First Nations that would establish additional protected areas for the endangered species and other measures meant to protect the animals from wolf attacks.
Residents were concerned about significant reductions in the annual allowable cut of timber in the Peace River region, in order to thwart wolf movements via logging roads.
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“Forest sector communities and workers are facing significant challenges. Timber supply shortages, high log costs, and volatile market prices have led to closures and curtailments across the interior of the province. Considering these circumstances, it comes as some relief that the province has seen fit to pause to ensure that collectively we strike the right balance between caribou recovery and economic viability,” BC Council of Forest Industries President Susan Yurkovich said.
“While these challenges have been building for several years, we need to do our utmost to commit to a working forest that secures long-term timber supply to be able to make assurances to our employees and communities in which we operate. As such, it is important that the interim moratorium announced today needs to be just that – interim – if we are to avoid more job losses.”
Lekstrom will continue to act as a liaison between government, communities and industry. In total, the former provincial politician made 14 recommendations.
Caribou numbers have faced serious declines in the past 20 years. The Central caribou population has dropped from about 800 in the early 2000s to about 220, the provincial government said.
The province says that prohibiting new high-impact forestry and mining activities is required while public engagement, Indigenous consultation and negotiations on a long-term caribou management strategy are underway.
Horgan recently acknowledged that his government did a poor job consulting with the community before putting forward the draft agreement. The community of Chetwynd, for example, was forecasting the loss of 500 jobs, which would cripple the community of around 3,000 people.
“What I will say is one of the most important things I heard throughout my entire engagement — regardless whether it was with industry, with individuals, backcountry user groups — everybody supported the concept of caribou recovery, and that’s vitally important to say,” Lekstrom said.
The moratorium will be in place until June 20, 2021, or until it is repealed. The southern mountain caribou were first designated as “threatened” under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2003.
— With files from Sean Boynton