The government of British Columbia hopes to nurse Selkirk Mountain caribou herds back to health by placing limits on logging and snowmobiling in sensitive habitat areas, according to a plan announced Tuesday.
Conservationists say the protections will also serve as a security blanket for a small herd of caribou that ranges into the Priest Lake backcountry of far northern Idaho.
The plan calls for curtailing logging on about 5.5 million acres of winter habitat for a dozen herds ranging across southern and central British Columbia. In addition, hunting pressure will be stepped up on cougars, wolves and other species that prey on caribou, according to a statement issued by the province’s minister of agriculture and lands, Pat Bell.
The province will spend $1 million a year for the next three years in hopes of restoring the herds to their pre-1995 levels of 2,500 animals, Bell said. The herds contain about 1,900 caribou today, including roughly 40 animals in the last herd to inhabit the continental United States.
“The decline in mountain caribou did not happen overnight, and neither will the recovery,” Bell said in a statement. “It will take several generations of mountain caribou before they reach pre-1995 levels. However, together with our partners, we are committed to doing whatever it takes.”
In Idaho, meanwhile, efforts are under way to better delineate appropriate snowmobile routes through caribou country near Priest Lake. Snowmobiling in the region has effectively been governed by federal court order for the past two seasons, following a successful lawsuit filed by the Selkirk Conservation Alliance. The U.S. Forest Service is currently developing a plan it hopes will protect caribou without cutting off snowmobile access.
Mark Sprengel, director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, said his group will continue to send up monitoring flights to ensure snowmobilers stay on designated trails. Sprengel added that greater attention will also be given in coming months to how Idaho manages caribou habitat on land east of Priest Lake.
Although details are still being tweaked for British Columbia’s caribou recovery plan, the concept calls for cutbacks in both logging and motorized recreation in high mountain habitat, which serves as wintering and birthing areas for caribou.
The lack of details and relative secrecy of the plan has angered environmental groups in Canada, including the Valhalla Wilderness Society, of New Denver, B.C. Conservation groups that wanted to participate in developing the plan were required to sign secrecy agreements, said Anne Sherrod, a director of the Valhalla Wilderness group.
“Backroom negotiations are not the way to handle public resources,” Sherrod said, going on to call the plan “greenwashing” and a “hoax.”
The plan encompasses 5.5 million acres – including 1 million acres previously unprotected – but huge tracts of habitat remain open for logging, road building and motorized sports, Sherrod said. The emphasis on hunting animals that prey on caribou also concerns Sherrod.
“This heavy killing of nine other species of wildlife to save the mountain caribous is aimed at quick recovery, I’m sure, to impress for the Olympics,” Sherrod said, referencing Vancouver’s 2010 winter games.
Conservation Northwest, of Bellingham, was one of 10 environmental groups that worked with the B.C. government to develop the plan. Joe Scott, the group’s international conservation director, said he was not comfortable signing a confidentiality agreement, but he said it was important for his group to add its perspective to the process rather than step away and protest.
“I would rather participate in a good faith effort to make this thing work,” Scott said. “This is a very good agreement. … It’s a significant amount of habitat.”