Alberta’s 1st caribou recovery plans not enough to protect species habitat, conservationists say

The Alberta government has released landmark plans for two caribou ranges in the province’s north, but conservationists and Indigenous groups say they don’t go far enough to protect species habitat. 

The plans, which are the first of their kind, outline a “made-in-Alberta” response to a deal made with the federal government in 2020 to develop a recovery strategy for the province’s caribou. 

They cover two regions where woodland caribou herds exist ⁠— Cold Lake and Bistcho Lake ⁠— and include restoration initiatives, maps of sensitive areas and proposed limits and opportunities for industry. 

Woodland caribou have been listed on Canada’s Species at Risk Act since 2003. Over the past century, their historical ranges have shrunk by up to 50 per cent, with particular declines noted in Alberta, northeastern British Columbia and Labrador. The main threats to caribou are habitat loss and increased predation. 

Gillian Chow-Fraser, a boreal program manager with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said that while it’s exciting that the province is finally releasing its first plans, they don’t go far enough to provide effective protection for the species. 

“This is stuff that really should have happened decades ago,” said Chow-Fraser.

“Now that we’re coming at this kind of late in the game, it means that the actions have to be a lot more aggressive.”

One of Chow-Fraser’s biggest concerns about the plans is the proposed allowance for further industrial development in the two regions, which contain old growth forests and wetlands — primary habitat for caribou.

In Bistcho Lake, for example, the plans propose a future permanent road network into a previously undisturbed region, said Chow-Fraser. 

An image of a caribou taken by a motion-sensor camera in Bistcho Lake in the northwest corner of Alberta. The Dene Tha’ First Nation operates a network of remote cameras based on traditional knowledge of herd movements. (Submitted by Dene Tha’ First Nation)

Roads, snowmobile trails and seismic lines — narrow corridors used in oil and gas exploration — make caribou more vulnerable to wolves, said Marco Festa-Bianchet, a professor of ecology at the University of Sherbrooke. He said they act as “superhighways” for the predators, which can move faster on the hard-packed routes than through old-growth forests. 

The government is promising to restore 25 per cent of land used for legacy seismic lines in the first decade, a move Chow-Fraser said is positive but loses potency when considered in the bigger picture. 

“You can make so much progress doing all kinds of restoration, which is very costly and really a lot of work,” she said. 

“But then you wouldn’t want all of that restoration to be cancelled out by a permanent road that goes in.”

Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association, illustrates a similar shortcoming in the government’s collaboration with the forestry industry. 

The plans outline a commitment from forestry companies to cluster their activities into fewer larger areas to avoid new road construction and further fragmented habitat, which Campbell said is encouraging. But she wishes these proposed impacts were presented alongside a picture of what’s happening with caribou habitat as a whole. 

Involvement misrepresented, say Dene Tha’

Campbell and Chow-Fraser also expressed their disappointment that the plans include only one long-term protected area ⁠— Kirkness Island in Bistcho Lake ⁠— and no Indigenous-led conservation initiatives.

They said the two task forces, made up of stakeholders from environmental consultancies, Indigenous groups and industry, unanimously recommended the government explore Indigenous-led protected areas. 

Matt Munson, a technician with the Dene Tha’ First Nation at Bistcho Lake, said his community was blindsided when they read the government’s final report. 

Munson said Dene Tha’ traditional knowledge was submitted to the government on the condition they would be able to review how it was used, and with the understanding that a process toward Indigenous-led conservation be included in the plan that would support the nation’s treaty rights. 

He said the government verbally agreed to Dene Tha’ consent prior to the plan’s release, in multiple meetings and in private emails and text messages. 

An aerial view of the Bistcho Lake region. (Submitted by Dene Tha’ First Nation)

Instead, Munson said the “content [we submitted] was used elsewhere in ways that we did not intend for it to be used, that basically misrepresents our involvement and support for the plan.”

Munson said the government’s actions are a breach of confidence, and that in his technical opinion, the plans are unsupportable. 

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment and Parks said the department made “significant efforts to collaborate with the Dene Tha’ First Nation on land use planning for the Bistcho Lake area.”

The plan, at its heart, is a development plan.– Matt Munson

The spokesperson said that Dene Tha’ feedback led to significant revisions to several sections of the plan, “including reducing permissible road densities or banning road construction in areas of importance identified by the nation.”

Munson said he is concerned about the plan’s allowances for industrial development and recreation in and around Dene Tha’ traditional lands. 

In Section 8 of the Bistcho Lake plan, Munson noted that peat extraction has been made permissible in two culturally important areas, Caribou Meadows, north of the town of Meander River, and Indian Cabins. 

“We found that we did not get what we needed and neither did the caribou, because the plan, at its heart, is a development plan,” said Munson.

A Canada-wide problem

Festa-Bianchet said it’s not just Alberta’s caribou that are disappearing, but herds across the country. 

“It’s not just an Alberta story, it’s a Canadian story. It’s delay, delay, delay, do nothing, pretend to do something and never address the real problem,” he said. 

Under the federal Species at Risk Act, provinces across Canada must outline how they’ll achieve and maintain a minimum of 65 per cent habitat over individual caribou ranges. 

Researchers and conservationists say wolf culls are a Band-Aid solution to prop up caribou populations. (Wildlife Infometrics)

In Quebec, the federal government has threatened to impose measures to protect woodland caribou if the province fails to come up with its own plan to adequately protect the species and its natural habitat by April 20. 

Campbell said that continuing to use Band-Aid solutions — such as wolf culls in Alberta and B.C. to prop up remaining caribou numbers — is unsustainable. 

“It is profoundly wrong for us to continue to scapegoat wolves without addressing our responsibility to the habitat that caribou and other wildlife require,” she said. 

Campbell said caribou are an indicator species, meaning that other wildlife and ecosystems benefit when caribou are doing well. 

“Without [caribou], we would not have survived to the present,” said Munson.

“Without them, our future and the landscapes that we also depend on are less certain.”

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