Editor, The Times:
A recent letter to the editor of the Clearwater Times mistakenly stated that protected ungulate winter ranges for mountain caribou are closed to snowmobiling and helicopter skiing.
In 2007 the B.C. government’s Mountain Caribou Science Team recommended closures of critical mountain caribou habitat to snowmobiling and helicopter skiing. Critical habitat was placed into Ungulate Winter Range protection (UWR) in 2008 through a government actions regulation order. Most of these UWR areas include protection from forest harvesting activities. However, under severe pressure from the snowmobile industry the B.C. government supported the development of special permits called Stewardship Management Agreements or SMAs. These permits were introduced to provide for continued snowmobiling activities in recently protected mountain caribou habitat.
The SMAs are not legally enforceable agreements and were arranged through a memorandum of understanding negotiated with the BC Snowmobile Federation and the Association of BC Snowmobile Clubs without allowing for sufficient public or stakeholder input. The intent was to allow historic levels of snowmobile activities to occur within pre-existing snowmobile use areas.
The UWR objective was to prevent current and future displacement of mountain caribou. The terms of reference stated that if there was the likelihood of increased intensity and frequency of snowmobile use in the proposed SMA area it would be denied for inclusion.
In the Blue River area the process facilitated a major expansion of “new” snowmobile destination riding areas located entirely within the protected endangered mountain caribou winter range areas. Over half of the Blue River SMA areas were newly created and formalized snowmobiling destinations while other areas have seen a spike in riding intensity and frequency.
Since SMA introduction, a subsidized effort to heavily promote and market these new snowmobile destination areas has occurred in the Blue River area.
Significant, legally protected mountain caribou habitat has remained open to snowmobiling, contrary to the government’s science team’s recommendations.
The Wells Gray North Thompson mountain caribou sub-population is being further threatened with decline.
At the same time that there is this very significant problem in Blue River, the local snowmobile club in Clearwater has taken a much more responsible approach to addressing endangered mountain caribou recovery efforts by staying within historical snowmobile use areas where previous management agreements were in place.
Each snowmobile club is responsible for education, signage, monitoring of boundary compliance and reporting wildlife sightings and occurrence. Parts of these SMA boundaries are accessed through complex avalanche terrain. Club members, who for the most part do not have professional training in avalanche risk management, are required to navigate potentially dangerous terrain and avalanche conditions in order to meet their SMA obligations. In 2009, immediately after approval of the snowmobile SMAs, all B.C. government employees, including conservation officers, were restricted from entering “any” avalanche terrain due to the introduction of WorkSafe BC avalanche worker safety measures. This has resulted in a deficiency of government monitoring of snowmobile SMA boundaries and inadequate enforcement measures for protected mountain caribou habitat.
Several people have witnessed acute displacement of mountain caribou by snowmobiles in protected mountain caribou habitat, the most recent being the week of Jan. 31 – Feb. 5.
The Mountain Caribou Science Team made specific recommendations to close some critical mountain caribou habitat areas to helicopter skiing, yet none have been implemented in the province.
One heli-ski operator has even applied for an increase in the number of helicopter skiing runs in the Quesnel region.
Most people are likely unaware of the high intensity and frequency of snowmobiling that continues to occur in legally “protected” mountain caribou habitat. These legally designated ungulate winter ranges for mountain caribou must first be closed to snowmobiling and heli-skiing before implementation of predator management programs. Otherwise recovery efforts are ineffective.
Yellowhead Ecological Association