Will Alberta’s Last-Ditch Effort to Save the Caribou Be Enough?

When the Alberta government released its draft plan to save the province’s dwindling caribou populations from local extinction earlier this month, it was heralded as a major step forward — but big questions remain.

The biggest one: after years of failing to intervene in the caribou crisis, will the new plan be enough to bring them back from the brink of extinction?

“It was great news for northwest populations where big protected areas are needed and there’s still time there to ensure caribou recovery,” conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell from the Alberta Wilderness Association told DeSmog Canada.

But when it comes to the Little Smoky range, it’s still not enough, Campbell said.

“The problem is the underlying causes of predation are still allowed to worsen in the next five years by restarting logging and by implying energy infrastructure can still go ahead,” she said. “We can’t support the plan continuing to destroy habitat.”

Woodland caribou are a threatened species both provincially and federally. According to provincial estimates, caribou are disappearing at a rate of about eight per cent per year due to habitat loss from energy and forestry development, which in turn increases wolves’ reach into caribou habitat.

Under the federal Species At Risk Act, the province must preserve 65 per cent of critical caribou habitat by October 2017.

“We inherited a bit of a policy logjam on this,” Environment Minister Shannon Phillips told the Calgary Herald. “Certainly, there were a number of jobs at risk both in the energy and the forestry sector, and we have a looming federal deadline for us to file our range plans for this particular species at risk. It made for a number of tough choices.”

Biggest Caribou Announcement in Decades

“This is the biggest caribou conservation announcement — in a real concrete way based on habitat — that’s come out of Alberta arguably for the last 30 or 40 years,” Mark Hebblewhite, associate professor of ungulate habitat biology at the University of Montana, told DeSmog Canada.

In 2011, after a lawsuit launched by the Alberta Wilderness Association forced both the Alberta and Canadian governments to address the problem, Alberta proposed a province-wide wolf cull, to the dismay of the general public and the scientific community.

For Hebblewhite, the current proposed plan is exciting because for the first time it puts emphasis on habitat protection and reclamation especially, but not exclusively, in those areas least impacted by industrial development.

“This plan really recognizes the important role of habitat in recovering caribou and that you can’t kill wolves forever and continue to not protect habitat,” he said.

Plan Goes Soft on Oil and Gas Industry

In addition to the protection of 18,000 square kilometres of caribou habitat in the northern part of the province, the plan addresses Alberta’s most at-risk caribou populations: the Little Smoky and A la Peche herds.

For those herds, which are located in prime forestry and oil and gas resource areas, the province proposed strict restrictions on timber harvest and recommends oil and gas limit their activity in those zones.

The proposal, Hebblewhite admits, could have been harder on the oil and gas industry.

“It’s a little softer on oil and gas than I think ultimately may be required to recover habitat,” Hebblewhite said.

That arrangement may mean any benefits for caribou coming at the expense of forestry might be outdone by oil and gas drilling in those ranges, Hebblewhite said.

Since 2012, when the federal draft caribou recovery strategy was released, 667 new wells were drilled in core critical caribou habitat in the Little Smoky range alone. A total of 96 per cent of that caribou range is within 500 metres of human development, Hebblewhite said.

“It’s the most heavily destroyed caribou habitat in the country.”

Campbell agrees the recovery strategy trends in the right direction by encouraging the energy industry to limit its impact in caribou ranges and it also rolls back the “perverse requirement” for leaseholders to develop their resource within five years of purchase — whether or not it makes economic sense.

“But,” Campbell said, “we don’t have limits on land disturbance.”

Reclamation Strategy Gets Industry On Side

Hebblewhite emphasized an important aspect of the current strategy is that it doesn’t pit industry against caribou recovery aims. Reclamation plans are being used as an opportunity to put oil and gas workers back on the job.

“There’s a huge investment in the restoration of seismic lines that wolves and other predators zoom up and down on and renders all these caribou vulnerable to predation,” he said.

That kind of innovative and inclusive thinking has brought industry on board with the plan, he said.

“It’s another strength of this plan, that it’s not being sniped and groused on by forestry and oil and gas.”

The province engaged a mediator who consulted with Aboriginal, environmental and industry groups.

Continued Habitat Destruction Means ‘Caribou Zoos’

Campbell said although the general sentiment is that oil and gas activity has ground to a halt in Alberta, there is still plenty of activity in natural gas plays like Fox Creek within the Little Smoky caribou range.

“It’s booming with activity. There are many big companies operating in there like Shell, CNRL and Encana that know very well they’re operating in endangered caribou habitat.”

Campbell said without specific and strict land disturbance limits, there is no way to guarantee caribou will get the habitat protections they need.

“With no limits set we are concerned that when this issue falls out of the public eye, conversations between companies and the regulator will lead to more disturbance.”

That leads to a prolonged reliance on the wolf kill, Campbell said.

And it has also led to the introduction of “caribou zoos” to fence in caribou, which Campbell calls “a step backwards.”

“Caribou and species at risk generally are valuable because of what they say about the habitat that they’re in,” she said.

“They’re not just little bizarre ornaments on the landscape that we should be keeping alive by all sorts of methods that don’t respect the ecology they need to thrive.”

However, for Stan Boutin, the University of Calgary conservation biologist that introduced the idea of caribou pens, it is going to take every sort of strategy possible to save the caribou herds most at risk of disappearing.

“I was keen to see this, this incorporation of this caribou rearing facility — or a pen, or zoo or whatever you want to call it — into the recovery strategy,” Boutin told DeSmog Canada.

“People are so eager to get back to a natural system that they think anything that’s artificial is not right to do,” Boutin said. “Those herds, particularly Little Smoky and A la Peche are never going to go back to being natural for many, many, many years.”

Boutin added the scientific and conservation communities seem to be able to stomach some amount of predator control but balk at a fence designed to achieve the same end.

“Apart from predator control, it’s the only other option. Everything else will do nothing in the short term to save the Little Smoky and A la Peche herds.”

“Let’s not forget that this is a compromise strategy for everyone,” Boutin said. “Everyone had to pay the piper.”

He congratulated the Notley government for working so hard behind the scenes to bring it together.

Climate Change Threatens Caribou Habitat

He added that regardless of the efforts made to save these critically endangered herds, climate change may so drastically alter their range in southern Alberta that it becomes no longer suitable for the species.

“That’s another hidden twist in all of this,” he said. “There’s a very real possibility that the changing climate for the southern distribution of caribou in Alberta has created a situation where we have deer now being a full-fledged part of the system, which means higher numbers of wolves, which in turn means caribou can‘t coexist there.”

The Little Smoky herd is an example of a population that is on the “trailing edge of their climate envelope,” Boutin said.

That could mean caribou in that region need permanent human intervention to survive in that region, he said.

Boutin said these shifting climate envelopes are going to become a more common conservation phenomena in coming years.

“We as a society have not grappled with how we are going to deal with those populations that are in that really tough circumstance where the only way you keep them is by very strong artificial management all the way through.”

Photo by John E Marriott Photography

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