First Nation Goes To Court To Protect Vanishing Caribou Herd

By Lloyd Dolha

The West Moberly First Nations have filed a petition with the BC Supreme Court to overturn a decision by the Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources (MEMPR) to approve mining permits to First Coal Corporation. They say First Coal will destroy critical habitat that an endangered caribou herd desperately needs for its survival. “Since 2008, we have been struggling to protect the last 11 remaining caribou of the Burnt Pine Caribou herd from extinction. So it was a sad day when MEMPR issued mining permits to FCC in September,” said Chief Roland Willson. “We are not alone in believing these permits are a death sentence to the caribou. Both our elders and the government scientists are on the same page. They all agree that coal mining in the caribou’s critical habitat will result in significant adverse effects.”

On September 2nd, British Columbia’s Chief Inspector of Mines approved an application by First Coal to amend its exploration permit and extract a bulk sample of up to 50,000 tonnes of coal from its Central South property near Chetwynd, BC. The Bulk Sample Amendment was a significant step in enabling First Coal to develop coal resources in the area and create new jobs. The company plans to begin extraction of the sample in late 2009. “Receipt of the Bulk Sample Amendment represents a real milestone for our company as we continue to put our plans in operation,” said Douglas Smith, president and CEO of First Coal. “We are committed to developing coal resources in British Columbia and becoming an active member of the business community in the Chetwynd region.”

First Coal’s property falls within Treaty 8 territory, which includes the traditional lands of four aboriginal groups: the Mcleod Lake Indian Band, Halfway River First Nation, Saulteau First Nation, and the West Moberly First Nations. The company has signed Memoranda of Understanding with Mcleod Lake and Halfway River and is continuing to build relationships with the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations. They say they have actively consulted the four groups and point to their intent to implement a comprehensive caribou mitigation and monitoring plan developed jointly with the First Nations and the ministry.

The company has also created a Burnt Pine Caribou Stewardship Group involving government scientists, the First Nations, and First Coal. The purpose of the group is to review monitoring results and activities and seek input from the stakeholders, working together to create awareness in the general public on potential threats to the caribou’s survival. But caribou expert Dr. Dale Seip, a wildlife ecologist from form the Ministry of Forests and Range, has publicly stated that the caribou herd is “critically endangered” and any further activities by First Coal would be “incompatible with the recovery of the herd.” In addition, scientists from the Ministry of the Environment have recommended that no activities occur in the critical habitat. The Burnt Pine Caribou are listed as a “threatened species” and are supposed to be legally protected from harmful activities. To date, the province has refused to develop and implement a recovery strategy for the dwindling herd as required under the federal Species At Risk Act.

The West Moberly say the ministry has downplayed their concerns and ignored the expert opinions of the provincial scientists and federal legislation. Last year, First Coal developed an extensive reclamation and remediation plan for areas already disturbed. Reclamation in these areas will be completed this year with First Nations’ assistance, but that’s not good enough for Chief Willson. “These caribou and their habitat are integral to the overall biodiversity of the area and to who we are as Mountain Dunne-za,” said Willson. “As stewards of the land, we cannot in good conscience stand by and watch MEMPR and First Coal flagrantly ignore the law and place the very existence of this caribou herd in serious jeopardy.” He added, “We have no other choice but to take this matter before the courts.”