Community concerns prompt B.C. government to add month to caribou consultations

DAWSON CREEK, B.C. — The British Columbia government has added a month to its consultations on caribou conservation because of community concerns over logging, backcountry access and talks with First Nations.

"This is clearly an issue that has enraged some people and has inflamed passions," said Premier John Horgan in Dawson Creek, a small city in northeastern B.C. that is in the heart of caribou country.

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Last month, a draft agreement was reached between two First Nations and the federal and provincial governments on temporary protection for a central B.C. caribou population while a long-term plan is developed.

The central caribou population has declined to about 220 animals from about 800 in the early 2000s, and a protection agreement was required under federal species-at-risk legislation.

Horgan said Monday that his government hadn't done a good enough job explaining the deal to people.

"It was clear the public wasn't satisfied with the information they were getting," he said. "We were sending public officials who sometimes weren't able to answer the questions the public was bringing up, because they weren't connected to the specific issue at play.

"There was a lack of understanding about what we were trying to accomplish here."

Misinformation was filling that gap, Horgan, said, especially about access to the backcountry for motorized outdoor recreation.

"Absent the full framework, people were conjuring up the worst outcomes possible. We wanted to nip that right now."

Loggers are also concerned about access to trees. Horgan acknowledged that the main harvest of trees killed by mountain pine beetle infestation is over.

"There is dwindling fibre supply," he said.

Horgan appointed Blair Lekstrom, a former local Liberal member of the legislature, as a liaison between the premier's office and the area.

Candace Batycki of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative said the extra month could help bring better information into the community.

"My hope is that it's enough time for a more fact-based conversation," she said.

Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead welcomed the extra consultation as well as Lekstrom's appointment, but said local concerns remain. "It's not clear what the impact will be on the forestry sector."

Bumstead said local people felt shouldered aside by constitutional requirements to consult First Nations, which may have contributed to racist-tinged remarks about the issue on social media.

"I'm concerned about the split that's occurring now because of the animosity toward the First Nations neighbours. This is a worry for me, when I see the nastiness of some of the comments that are coming out," the mayor said.

Batycki agrees the discussion has become racially charged.

"We've been concerned about a lot of the racist tone of what's been going on in social media," she said.

She pointed out last month's draft deal was the result of two years of talks and she hopes the extra consultation doesn't delay at least temporary caribou protection for too long.

"Without interim measures in place, the problem gets worse."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow @row1960 on Twitter

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