Industry, conservationists divided over Alberta’s caribou recovery plan

The provincial government is concerned the Michipicoten Island caribou will be wiped out if no action is taken. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Peninsula Clarion, M. Scott Moon

Alberta’s draft provincial woodland caribou range plan continues to spark debate between economic viability and wildlife preservation.

Currently, the province’s caribou herds are in steep decline.

It’s a concerning trend, says Carolyn Campbell, conservation officer for the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“There was a group of scientists a few years ago who said Alberta caribou populations are declining 50 per cent every eight years. It’s because of habitat disturbance. It robs caribou of the ability to avoid predators,” Campbell said.

Campbell said the increased levels of predation is a product of how forests are fragmented, causing habitat problems in many forms.

The province’s plan, released in December to meet federal objectives, aims to achieve self-sustaining caribou populations while working alongside oil and gas companies.

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READ MORE: Alberta government unveils draft plan to address endangered woodland caribou herds

Part of the proposal involves achieving a 65 per cent undisturbed habitat for caribou recovery.

“Caribou need to be in older forests that are intact. It’s the layer of disturbance we’ve put,” Campbell said. “It’s the logging, the unmanaged roads, the pipeline networks and recreational access that’s also unmanaged.”

Habitat restoration will come with a hefty price tag. Alberta Forest Alliance director Ray Hiltz said it could cost billions of dollars, and pit the needs of taxpayers against those of the caribou.

Hiltz’s group formed in response to the Alberta government’s caribou range plan.

“I think Albertans, both rural and urban, have to look at this and go, ‘Well, we’ve been lobbying for a hospital for a long period of time. So, do we want hospitals or do we want to resource caribou this much?'” Hiltz said.

Demonstrators at the legislature on Feb. 22 called on the province to draft a better plan for industry when it comes to caribou conservation.

“When I looked at 13.3 million hectares of Alberta’s forest, I look at all the disturbance — there’s only 4.3 per cent of that area that’s disturbed by industry,” Hiltz said.

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“When you look at the analysis that the federal government did, almost every single range is at or exceeding the federal threshold.”

READ MORE: Federal government to get Alberta caribou recovery plan next month: minister

In Alberta, 15 populations of caribou are on public land, not including small populations in Jasper National Park.

Campbell thinks caribou recovery doesn’t have to come at the cost of jobs if oil and gas and forestry can coordinate their efforts.

“We could have our forests recovering, and sustainable communities, if we just respected the habitat requirements [caribou need] and worked our human activities around that,” Campbell noted.
“There are so many opportunities for solutions that involve a better approach to logging [and] oil and gas surface disturbance that would have great benefits for our forest.”

Public consultations will take place in several communities this week to go over the draft plan.

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— With files from Morgan Smith

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