N.W.T. releases plan to protect Bathurst caribou, but some fear it's too late

After years of compromise, discussion and debate, a range plan to protect the dwindling Bathurst caribou herd's lands from overdevelopment was approved by the Northwest Territories government this week.

Herd has decreased by 98% in past 30 years

The Bathurst caribou herd has declined by 98 per cent in 30 years, according to the range plan, released earlier this week. (N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resources)

After years of compromise, discussion and debate, a range plan to protect the dwindling Bathurst caribou herd's lands from overdevelopment was approved by the Northwest Territories government this week.

The non-binding plan makes a link between the impacts of increasing development in the tundra and the taiga and the threat to barren-ground caribou herd levels.

Over the last 30 years, the herd has decreased in numbers by 98 per cent, according to the document.

In areas where the caribou might already be feeling the effects of development, it calls for new features, such as traffic management, that might make developments less disturbing. It also calls for more research into the herd.

In the situation where development reaches a "high risk" level, it suggests halting development until the risk can be brought down to a more manageable level.

Bathurst caribou in the summer of 2017. The N.W.T. government has released its range plan for the herd, which has been dwindling in size for decades. (Petter Jacobsen)

"There are actually ... thresholds out there to answer the question of how much [development] is enough," said Andrea Patenaude, a wildlife biologist with the territorial Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"You can't underestimate how difficult a job that was — and how important it will be in discussions going forward."

The plan also recommends that older forests, which are important caribou habitat, be prioritized when the territory puts out wildfires. It calls for online map staking, which the N.W.T. government says it tried to lay the groundwork for in its proposed Mineral Resources Act.

It also calls for legislation to be used to protect calving grounds, water crossings and land bridges that caribou depend on. And finally, it suggests trying out a "mobile" management pilot project, where people limit activity when caribou are nearby. 

'Vague and weak,' says MLA

One MLA fears the document won't go far enough to save the caribou before it's too late to revive the herd.

"It's difficult to interpret because it is so vague and weak," said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly. For example, while the current cabinet has committed to the plan, it's not clear what the next government will do after the October territorial election, he says. 

O'Reilly notes that while it's taken years to even get the range plan approved, the territorial government continues making strides on its ambitions for all-weather roads like the Slave Geological Corridor, which would connect mines in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean and move directly through the threatened herd's core habitat. 

"I think we've come to a point in the population of the caribou that people have to make a hard choice here between whether we want an all-weather road or whether we want the Bathurst caribou herd to survive," says O'Reilly.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly says the Department of Environment should have made moves to protect and manage the Bathurst caribou years ago. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi/CBC)

"There's always money for roads but there doesn't seem to be any new investment for trying to save the caribou."

In a statement in the legislature, Premier Bob McLeod said the territory is working with Ottawa to find more funding and that the territorial government had also found money to support the range plan.

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Tom Beaulieu argued that an all-season road through Nunavut to promote mining could actually benefit caribou, because miners would be less likely to race their trucks through the region during ice road season.

"The people in the Beaufort Delta know it's a lot easier to manage caribou on an all-season road," he said. "There's no pressure. Once the road is built, then if caribou are crossing the people that built the road ... can close the road."

O'Reilly is also concerned by the region around Yellowknife and the Tlicho, where development and a spate of wildfires have resulted in almost half the land in the region being disturbed. He thinks that this area should be considered high-risk, even if wildfires, and not only human interaction, contributed to the disturbance. 

Jody Pellissey, a representative for the Wekeezhi Renewable Resources Board which approved the plan this spring, said that while her board "prefers a more conservative approach to the management of disturbances to the Bathurst caribou herd, there were compromises made by all involved throughout the development of the BCRP [Bathurst caribou range plan]." 

Patenaude, the biologist, wasn't able to offer a timeline for implementation of the plan's recommendations, saying "the short answer is as soon as possible."