British Columbia’s government has been meeting with the forest industry to develop plans to save endangered caribou, and the province appears to have launched its controversial wolf cull program to avoid putting further restrictions on logging.
The wolf kill, which started last January, has drawn international condemnation from environmentalists, but the B.C. government has defended it as necessary to save dwindling caribou populations. Mountain caribou, which need old-growth forest to survive, are listed under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA), and the province is required to take action to save them.
But briefing notes prepared for meetings between B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak and industry representatives in 2014 suggest the government was prompted by the forest industry to launch the wolf cull because of fears a federal recovery plan for caribou would demand more logging areas be set aside.
“Tolko [Industries Ltd.] is concerned about potential impacts of the federal recovery strategy for the woodland caribou,” says one of the notes, released in response to a Freedom of Information application. Ottawa’s recovery strategy states that caribou need large tracts of “undisturbed habitat rich in mature to old-growth coniferous forest.” It is up to the province to decide how much forest land to set aside. Environmentalists have long complained that B.C. has not made enough old-growth forest off limits to logging.
At the time of Ms. Polak’s meetings, the B.C. government’s mountain caribou recovery implementation program, known as MCRIP, had already set aside some forest land, established a captive breeding program for caribou and limited recreational snowmobile access in caribou areas. But a proposed wolf cull had not yet been launched.
“Actions within the MCRIP have largely been implemented with the exception of effectively managing wolf populations. Industry has criticized government for failing to effectively implement this recovery action, and will be very reluctant to forgo additional harvesting opportunities to meet any additional habitat targets imposed by the federal recovery strategy,” states a briefing note from April, 2014.
B.C.’s wolf cull began several months later.
The briefing notes also show that the forest industry and government were interested “in aligning strategies with respect to dealing with the federal government” on the caribou issue.
One entry states that the province’s caribou plan “had been ‘tested’ with numerous high-level stakeholders, including the Council of Forest Industries,” which represents forestry companies in B.C., before it was posted for public comment.
Wilderness Committee director Gwen Barlee, who filed the FOI application that pried the documents loose, said she is alarmed by how closely the government and the forest industry appear to have been working.
“Are we having the B.C. government write recovery strategies for species at risk, or are we having logging companies writing recovery strategies for species at risk?” she asked.
“A recovery strategy is supposed to be a document created by science,” Ms. Barlee said. “Obviously, the recovery strategies are becoming polluted with the economic interests of logging companies … and that is not supposed to be the case.”
Sean Nixon, a lawyer with Ecojustice, also found the government briefing notes disturbing.
“This looks like the forest industry in B.C. is either directing the government’s policy on species at risk where that might affect timber harvesting, or at a minimum the provincial government is running the policy by the forest industry to make sure that it’s okay with them. Either is troubling,” he said.
If a provincial government does not “effectively protect” any endangered species listed under SARA, Ottawa can impose regulations on provincial land. Given B.C.’s approach so far, which seems more concerned about logging interests than the needs of caribou, the federal government may have to do just that.