500 dead wolves vs. 500 lost jobs: Town balks at potential cost of saving caribou in northeastern B.C.
'They're talking about shutting one mill down ... That would be the end of the town'
Five hundred jobs may be at risk under a new plan to protect endangered caribou in northern British Columbia.
Provincial officials say dramatic action is needed to save at-risk herds living near the community of Chetwynd, an industry town northeast of Prince George.
Though wolf culls are effective, they are costly and controversial so the provincial government says a limit on logging in the region could be a more effective long-term solution.
"We're extremely worried," said Rhonda Pruden, who has lived in Chetwynd for decades. Her husband retired from one of the town's two lumber mills and her son still works in one.
Pruden said it's important to protect the caribou. But she fears saving the animals could kill her town.
"They're talking about shutting one mill down and maybe both in order to do this caribou recovery," she said. "It would just be unbelievable. That would be the end of the town."
"Everybody's just sick and worried."
'We're trying to get the government to listen'
Roughly 500 people packed into a public meeting held by the provincial government in Chetwynd on April 1 — about 20 per cent of the community's population.
Tom Ethier, assistant deputy minister for the province's Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, tried to reassure them that no plan would be finalized without hearing their opinions.
"We're here to listen, listen carefully, and take your advice," he said.
But many in the audience felt too much decision-making is going on behind closed doors.
Community consultations were originally scheduled to take place in 2018, but were cancelled as provincial, federal and First Nations governments worked out final details in their draft plan, prompting criticism from locals.
Rodger Roy, general manager of Chetwynd's West Fraser mill, said provincial officials told him up to 500 jobs could be lost if logging is halted to protect habitat.
"Just imagine the frustration and concern people have," he said.
Chetwynd Mayor Allen Courtoreille said he's been through a mill closure that cost him his job.
"It was a devastating feeling and something I don't want anybody else to go through," he said
"Right now, we're trying to get the government to listen."
476 wolves killed so far
The subject of wolf culls came up during a presentation from Dale Seip, the province's lead researcher on caribou conservation.
In his presentation, Seip said while most caribou are killed by wolves, the underlying cause is industry clearing out mature forests, making it easier for moose to roam.
As the number of moose increase, so do the number of wolves feeding on them — and, in turn, caribou.
To combat this, an "aerial wolf removal program" has been underway in the province since 2015 killing 476 wolves, according to provincial figures.
Seip said while the cull is effective, it needs to be done annually because as long as there is space for moose to roam, wolves will return.
Urban-rural divide exasperated
The discussion became a flashpoint in Chetwynd, as Seip asked whether people there were prepared to see over 100 wolves killed every year to protect caribou.
When audience members replied in the affirmative, he pointed out people living elsewhere might disagree.
"Do you know what would happen if I asked that question in downtown Vancouver?" he asked.
"We don't care!" audience members yelled back. "They don't live here!"
Meetings continue in the coming week, and consultations on the protection plan close May 3.