British Columbia·Metro Matters

Northern B.C. communities on edge as they await decision on caribou protection plan

Forget about Tuesday's provincial budget: in northern B.C., the biggest source of political speculation is what a draft plan to protect the caribou population will look like.

A lack of information is causing worry — but so is the region's political culture

A sign on the Alaska Highway between Dawson Creek and Fort St. John illustrates how heavy industry and natural habitat for endangered species share overlapping areas. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Forget about Tuesday's provincial budget: in northeastern B.C., the biggest source of political speculation surrounds a plan to protect the caribou population

For months, the provincial government has been developing its blueprint to create a secure long-term habitat for the approximately 200 caribou still in the south Peace River region.

It's set to be released by the end of February, and it's hard to find a local official who isn't worried that it could put significant restrictions on future use of the region, both for industry and recreation. 

"The frustration is there," said Tumbler Ridge Mayor Keith Bertrand. 

During last year's local elections, Bertrand lobbied for more consultation. But he says it's been the equivalent of slamming his head against a wall — and in a town where mining is the dominant industry, there's worry a decision might be imposed that affects peoples' way of life. 

"People in Tumbler Ridge recognize the fact that caribou are endangered and they're in trouble. And we really take ownership of our backcountry, so we really want to help in any way that we can," he said.

"The biggest problem is we just don't know what the plan is."

Approximately 200 caribou reside in the Central Mountain Caribou district, which spans most of the South Peace Regional District. (Getty Images)

Jobs and recreation 

There are a number of reasons why the province's Caribou Recovery Program has become such a contentious issue in the small and mid-sized communities that dot northeastern B.C. 

The first is economic: while tourism has gained in importance in recent decades, most communities are heavily dependent on mining, natural gas or forestry, and there's fear the caribou recovery plan could curtail future expansion.

"We rely on that kind of tax base ... so we need to make sure that the allowable cut is not hampered by the caribou," said Chetwynd Mayor Allen Courtoreille, who estimates about 20 per cent of his town's revenue comes from the two mills that service nearby forests. 

The second reason is cultural: unfettered access to the land for backcountry recreation is a big appeal for many, and that could also be changed by any protection plan. 

"That's why we live here: the mountains, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting. Those are the things that we do," said Kathleen Connolly, a member of the Concerned Citizens for Caribou Recovery group. 

A town sign reading 'Tumbler Ridge Visitor Centre' with a dinosaur above it.
B.C.'s last purpose-built town, Tumbler Ridge is mostly dependent on mining to sustain its economy. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Public meetings cancelled   

But perhaps the biggest issue is one that bedevils plenty of governments: residents say the province hasn't shared details of what they want to do, so they have no idea what to expect.

"In the past there's been a commitment for open and transparent inclusive dialogue. It hasn't happened" said Dan Rose, vice chair of the Peace River Regional District. He worries the government has made up its mind and won't deviate from the draft plan. 

The province has cancelled several meetings planned to provide information to the public. At the same time, discussion continues to take place with multiple First Nations, primarily the Saulteau, as part of its commitment to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"Our smaller communities have a lot of First Nations that [have] been part of our communities for years, it's starting to create little cracks in that. And all of a sudden folks are starting to look at each other a little bit differently. And I think that's the sad part of it and the dangerous part of it," said Rose. 

Representatives for the Saulteau did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Doug Donaldson said the government didn't want to communicate with the general public before it had concrete information to share. 

Chetwynd Mayor Allen Courtoreille worries a caribou protection plan might impede upon the town's two mills. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

"I understand there's a tension between engagement and then having something to engage on, and we didn't have the full amount of material that we wanted," he said, adding that there were "legitimate concerns around safety" at the cancelled meetings.

The draft plan will be presented to the public later this month, said Donaldson, who promised open consultation with all communities before any final decision is made.

It's possible that plan will satisfy all camps, and the worry over the past few months will be quickly forgotten.

Or it could turn into the next frontier of B.C.'s growing battles on land use and local consent.

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.