The governments of Canada and Alberta have struck an agreement under section 11 of the federal Species at Risk Act under which Alberta will take the lead in promoting the recovery of the province’s caribou populations, and the federal government will contribute cash while keeping a watchful eye over Alberta’s shoulder. The agreement puts to rest, at least for now, the risk of the federal government issuing an Emergency Protection Order or a Critical Habitat Protection Order in relation to Alberta’s caribou populations or ranges.
Canada has struck similar conservation agreements for caribou with British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.
There are two types of woodland caribou in Alberta: southern mountain caribou and boreal caribou. Both are listed as threatened under Alberta’s Wildlife Act and the federal Species at Risk Act.
“The situation is quite dire in Alberta for caribou,” says Gillian Chow-Fraser, boreal program manager with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Northern Alberta, in a phone interview with EcoLog News. “There’s one scientific study that estimated that caribou in Alberta are declining 50% every eight years. The clock is ticking.”
Under the agreement, Alberta commits to a long list of conservation, management, and recovery actions intended to achieve naturally self-sustaining caribou populations and habitat recovery. The actions are sound, says Chow-Fraser, and they’re desperately needed, but she’s troubled by the time horizons. For instance, range plans, which she describes as critical pieces for caribou recovery, won’t be in place until 2025.
Five years may not seem excessive when speaking of species recovery, but they were supposed to have been completed in 2017 under the Species at Risk Act, she says. If they’re implemented in 2025, they’ll be eight years overdue. What’s needed is immediate action, she says.
Currently, there’s a moratorium on the sale of any new energy leases in caribou ranges. That’s been in place for many years, says Chow-Fraser. “But all existing leases can still be developed,” she says, so over the course of the five years of range planning, plenty of damage might still be done to caribou habitat.
In Alberta, caribou habitat has the misfortune of overlapping with land with prime resource development potential. There’s already a high baseline of habitat disturbance, she says, and the range plans will have to strike a balance between resource development imperatives and the needs of the caribou.
“We like to see a prioritization of caribou needs, of course,” she says.
Industry appears to welcome the agreement, if only because it removes the spectre of a federal Emergency Protection Order.
“With this agreement, Indigenous communities, local governments and industry can continue to forge a path forward that will help save Alberta’s caribou populations and ensure a strong economic future for all Canadians with sustainable oil and natural gas development,” said Tim McMillan, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, in a statement.
“With significant input from the province’s caribou task forces, we will continue to work toward practical, balanced solutions that respect our wild species, our land and the livelihoods of Albertans,” said Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon in a statement.