British Columbia

West Moberly First Nations chief denounces 'fear mongering' over caribou protection plan

Roland Willson says the plan to save B.C.'s caribou should be a "proud moment for everybody" and denounces what he called "fear mongering" over job losses and backcountry closures.

Fears over job losses and closing backcountry are overblown and boiling over into racism, Roland Willson says

West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson helped draft one of two plans aimed at protecting B.C. caribou that are now being presented to the public for feedback. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Over the past several weeks, a controversy has been brewing in B.C.'s northeast over a draft plan aimed at preventing the region's caribou herds from disappearing.

On Monday, Premier John Horgan visited Dawson Creek to express regret his government hadn't done a good enough job explaining the deal, amid fears that the plan would curtail local industry and backcountry access.

He also appointed former B.C. Liberal Cabinet Minister Blair Lekstrom as a liaison between the premier's office and communities in the northeast, and added an extra month to the public consultation period.

Those moves were welcomed by West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson who, along with Chief Ken Cameron of the Saulteau First Nations, helped negotiate the draft caribou protection plan in northeastern B.C. alongside the federal and provincial governments.

In 2018, the federal government declared an "imminent threat" to caribou in B.C. The population of central mountain herds stands at a little more than 200, around a quarter of the population in the early 2000s.

In an interview with CBC Radio West host Sarah Penton, Willson said the deal should be a "proud moment for everybody" and denounced what he called "fear mongering" over job losses and backcountry closures.

The West Moberly First Nations are partners in a successful effort at helping an at-risk caribou herd recover in northeastern B.C. Calves born to the Klinse-Za caribou herd are protected from predators for the first few months of their life before being released into the wild. (Wildlife Infometrics)

Premier John Horgan has said that he regrets not holding community meetings earlier. Do you share that regret?

I do. During our [negotiation] process, we told [government] numerous times that they needed to get out in front of this thing and start talking to people.

The mayor [of Chetwynd] was sitting in our office and asking us questions about this agreement. Why is that?

A key concern is rumours that 500 jobs could be lost in the forestry sector. What do you know about how much may change?

So what we're talking about is a total of of maybe 300,000 cubic meters of volume that would have to be reduced in three areas ... They're cutting in these three areas around 7.9 million cubic meters, and they can't absorb a 300,000 cubic meter reduction to save caribou that they impacted?

What does the agreement actually say about backcountry use?

There's going to be restrictions to high elevations where caribou are. Nobody's shutting down hiking or any of that stuff — hikers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, campers — that's a flat-out lie.

So there will be no backcountry closures?

If we are recovering caribou, there are going to have be some closures.

We're not shutting down the backcountry. Those closures are going to be where the caribou are, which are small areas [and] most of those areas are restricted already.

So for those people to be running out there and saying that kind of stuff, that's fear mongering.

The premier says there's too much animosity on this issue.

People are blaming the [First] Nations for what's happening.

There's Facebook pages popping up with "drunk Indians, it's them that are shooting all the caribou"; "All they want is a land grab." It's getting out of hand. People are getting scared to go into town and go shopping.

We're trying to save jobs. We're trying to work co-operatively.

How optimistic are you that we can grow mountain caribou herds again and also keep forestry jobs as well as access to the backcountry?

One-hundred per cent. We're doing it now.

We have a caribou maternity pen, we've taken a herd that was at 19 and we got it back up to over 70 caribou now.

There are industries that are in favour of this. Mining, they've given us a thumbs-up.

There are good things happening here and this is not a bad thing. This should be a proud moment for everyone.

This interview aired on CBC Radio West on April 16 and has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, click on the audio below:

Roland Willson says the plan to save B.C.'s caribou should be a "proud moment for everybody" and denounces what he called "fear mongering" over job losses and backcountry closures. 9:22

With files from the Canadian Press