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By Sarah Cox
Van Tighem says we, as a society, are not prepared to address the underlying issue of habitat loss for caribou because “it means we would have to think differently about who we are and how we live.”
The prevailing mindset is to conceive of the Canadian economy rooted in the exploitation of natural resources — the oft-cited “hewer of wood and drawer of water,” he notes.
We aren’t willing to change our ambitions, he says, so we seek another way to ‘save’ caribou.
Instead of taking immediate measures to protect critical caribou habitat and designate some areas off limits to forestry, mining, oil and gas development and road-building, we zero in on wolves.
“We look at the problem and we say we need to find a way to save the caribou and keep logging,” Van Tighem says. “We need to find a way to save the caribou and keep … motorized recreation. We need to find a way to save the caribou and keep on drilling for oil and gas and piping it off to the export markets … And it comes right back to how you introduce the question.”
Earlier this year, the B.C. and federal governments signed a landmark agreement with two First Nations in the Peace region that aims to protect endangered caribou herds through habitat protection and restoration, in addition to annual wolf culls.
But no such new protections have been forthcoming for endangered southern mountain caribou herds in the rest of the province, including in the Kootenay and Chilcotin regions. The majority of B.C.’s southern mountain caribou herds are covered by a second, much vaguer, caribou recovery agreement that does not include robust habitat protections.
Last year, Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, said additional habitat protection for caribou in the south of the province were unnecessary, but did not provide any scientific evidence to back his statement.
Boutin says society will have to make some tough decisions about which caribou populations to save and which to let go, based on probabilities of herd survival. Those decisions must be guided by science, he says.
It’s a similar strategy to priority threat management, championed in Canada by scientist Tara Martin, who describes the methodology as “a mathematical equation to determine how to save as many species as possible for the least cost.”
Right now, Boutin says “we’re just throwing good money after bad,” killing wolves in the critical habitat of some caribou herds that have lost so much habitat they are unlikely to persist no matter what we do.
“If there’s no concerted effort by governments to do the other hard part — which is land use management — it’s a very unfair situation because we’re just killing wolves for a short term return on investment that in the end will not amount to our ultimate goal, which is to keep caribou around in the long term.”