Canada and British Columbia southern mountain caribou protection study 2017: chapter 1

1. Introduction

The purpose of this jointly-conducted Protection Study (“the Study”) is to inform provincial and federal decision making with respect to the ongoing protection and recovery of southern mountain caribou in British Columbia (BC). It is a point-in-time review of information which was publically available as of October 2016.

“Southern mountain caribou” refers to the caribou population that was listed as threatened in 2003 on Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) as “Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population (Rangifer tarandus caribou)”. Southern mountain caribou occur within the Southern Mountain National Ecological Area (SMNEA). The SMNEA is part of a national ecological classification system used by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

1.1 Background to the protection study

BC and Canada are signatories to the national Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk and the Canada-British Columbia Agreement on Species at Risk. The governments of both jurisdictions believe that activities and programs related to species at risk such as caribou should be undertaken in a coordinated and cooperative manner.  Both governments have developed plans to address the recovery of caribou.

On Oct 4, 2016, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change (ECC), Catherine McKenna, and BC's Minister of Environment, Mary Polak, announced their intention to conduct a joint study to review the legislative tools in place to protect the southern mountain caribou and their habitat with the ultimate goal of determining what additional steps may need to be taken by federal or provincial governments to protect and recover southern mountain caribou.

In addition to the legislative review, this Study provides an overview of BC's approach to caribou recovery, including actions aimed at stabilizing population declines in the short term, addressing legacy impacts of habitat change, reducing future risk to caribou, and balancing the competing needs of caribou conservation with the varied interests of existing tenure holders, First Nations, and local communities.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) will use the information from the Study to help inform decisions under the SARA, in particular in relation to whether the individualsFootnote1 and their critical habitat are protected (i.e. sections 34, 61, 63). SARA looks first to provinces to protect species at risk under their jurisdiction where they are found on provincial or private land.

If the Minister of ECC forms the opinion, after consultation with the provincial Minister, that critical habitat is not effectively protected under provincial law and there is no protection under SARA (e.g. through an agreement) or under other federal law, the Minister must make a recommendation to the Governor in Council (federal Cabinet) for an order which would prohibit destruction of critical habitat on the unprotected portions. If an order were in place, prohibited activities may be exempted or permitted under the Act.

The Minister of ECC cannot consider socio-economic factors such as impacts on tenure holders and community interests, nor the benefits of any non-habitat related actions, in forming her opinion on critical habitat protection. The federal Cabinet, on the other hand, may take into account such considerations. If a protection order was to be recommended, the Governor in Council may choose to make the order apply to all unprotected critical habitat, apply only to some areas of unprotected critical habitat, or may choose not to issue an order. The process for considering critical habitat protection on non-federal lands is described more fully in the draft Policy on Critical Habitat Protection on Non-federal LandsFootnote2.

The information in this Study will also contribute to decision-making related to protection of individuals. SARA sets out a similar process as that described above for critical habitat. If the Minister of ECC is of the opinion that the laws of the province effectively protect the species, no further action is required. If she is of the opinion that provincial laws do not effectively protect the species, SARA requires that the Minister recommend to the Governor in Council that a protection order be made to bring prohibitions against killing or harming the individuals into force (see s.32 of SARA of full list).

This Study represents a transparent means of presenting information, but this particular format is not a necessary precursor to decision-making under SARA.

BC will consider information presented in this Study, as well as feedback received during the public comment period, to evaluate the effectiveness of their legislation and management actions taken to date and to assess the benefits, costs, and biological/technical feasibility of additional actions that could be taken to improve progress toward meeting Canada and BC's caribou recovery objectives.

Both governments may consider this Study to provide context for land use, regulatory, and other decisions that could affect conservation and recovery of southern mountain caribou.

For information on the study and the process, please email or

1.2 Federal and provincial approaches to caribou recovery

1.2.1 Federal approach to caribou recovery

The federal approach to southern mountain caribou recovery is reflected in the federal Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada (Environment Canada 2014, henceforth, “federal recovery strategy”).   The federal recovery strategy identifies caribou critical habitat and the activities likely to result in its destruction, and was posted as “final” on the Species at Risk Public Registry on June 3, 2014. The federal recovery strategy also includes a summary of actions by provincial and federal governments and Indigenous peoples completed or being taken at that time.

The federal recovery strategy distinguishes between three groups of caribou within the SMC population identified as having distinct ecological and evolutionary characteristics; namely the Northern Group, Central Group, and Southern Group. This follows the most recent COSEWIC status report, which considers these groups as different “designable units” (COSEWIC 2014).

1.2.2 BC's approach to caribou recovery

Provinces and territories are the lead jurisdictions for the management and recovery of caribou on non-federal lands in Canada. BC's current approach is presented in the Implementation Plan for the Ongoing Management of South Peace Northern Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou pop. 15) in British Columbia (BC Ministry of Environment 2013) and accompanying Science Update (BC Ministry of Environment, 2014) and the Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan (MCRIP) which was approved in 2007.

BC's South Peace Northern Caribou (SPNC) plan addresses populations in the areas around Tumbler Ridge.  This plan is inclusive of the caribou subpopulations referred to in the federal recovery strategy as the “Central Group”, that occur in BCFootnote3. The MCRIP was approved in 2007 and provides management guidance for subpopulations referred to in the federal recovery strategy as the “Southern Group.” Implementation plans outline the provincial government's response to managing species at risk. Such government decisions are informed by science but are also made with consideration of socio-economic factors. BC's caribou implementation plans include actions related to habitat protection and restoration, predator-prey management, and direct population actions such as transplantation of wild caribou and maternity penning.

1.2.3 Differences in terminology, and approach used for this study

BC caribou plans do not use the term “critical habitat” because this term has a specific meaning in the context of SARA; however, BC has modelled habitat suitability and has mapped the boundaries of seasonal caribou ranges based on extensive field studies and on the expert opinion of experienced caribou biologists.

For the Central and Northern Groups, the federal recovery strategy recognizes high elevation winter range, low elevation winter range, Type 1 and Type 2 “matrix” habitat. The provincial SPNC plan focuses on high and low elevation winter range. Subsequent work has mapped high elevation summer ranges, and the concept and importance of managing matrix range is widely recognized.

Although the two governments have differing views on some aspects of what habitat is required for recovery, and on approaches to caribou recovery, information from the federal recovery strategy has been used for the purpose of this Study. Work to reach agreement on these differing views is occurring through a separate ongoing process to consider possible amendments to the federal recovery strategy and provincial plans.

1.3 Protection study components

The Study is comprised of four additional sections.  They include:

  1. Biological review – this section describes the most current information and understanding of SMC population status trends in SMC Local Population Units (LPUs)
  2. Description of legislative instruments – this section describes provincial laws that are or may be used to prevent destruction of critical habitatFootnote4 and prevent the killing, harming, harassing, capture or taking of individuals.  
  3. Analysis of legislative instruments - this section includes a spatial analysis of where the legislative instruments with potential to prevent destruction of critical habitat apply on the ground and analysis of discretion in decision-making related to authorizing activities with potential to impact caribou critical habitat.
  4. Risk analysis – This section examines how geology, geography, spatial constraints and industry development patterns affect the potential for destruction of caribou habitat.

1.4 Scope of the protection study

The geographic boundary of the Study is non-federal lands within the boundaries of the Central Group LPUs (shown in blue on Map 1) that occur in BC. Provincially-administered lands constitute more than 99% of the area within the Central Group LPU boundaries in BC. The legislative review considers BC provincial legislation only. Southern mountain caribou occur in National Parks, but there are no National Parks within the boundaries of the Central Group in BCFootnote5.

The remainder of the LPUs in the Southern and Northern Groups are not the focus of this Study, but some information is provided for context.  The Southern Group includes the mountain caribou populations included in BC's 2007 MCRIP shown in yellow on Map 1. The Northern Group LPUs include northern ecotype caribou that range in the Chilcotin and south Skeena areas shown as green on Map 1.

Map 1. Groups and Local Population Units of Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population (from Environment Canada 2014Footnote6).
Map of groups and local populations (see long description below)
Long description for map 1

This map shows the distribution of Southern Mountain Caribou in southern British Columbia and southwest Alberta. A thick red outline shows the extent of the Southern Mountain National Ecological Area. Thin black outlines show the boundaries of Local Population Units (LPUs). Subpopulations boundaries are within the LPU boundaries, and they are shown in three colours: yellow for subpopulations in the Southern Group, which are in the central and eastern part of BC; blue for subpopulations in the Central Group, which are in the South Peace region of BC, Jasper National Park, and western Alberta north of Jasper; and green for subpopulations in the Northern Group, which are in the Cariboo-Chilcotin and Omineca areas of BC.

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