Canada chooses tar sands over caribou

On Friday afternoon, just hours after the State Department issued a finding of “no significant impact” for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the Government of Canada quietly announced a plan that will virtually eliminate threatened caribou herds in Alberta’s Boreal forest. This is the latest example of how Canada’s iconic boreal forest and its wildlife populations are victims of the Government of Canada’s singular focus to protect its tar sands industry.  The Canadian government’s announcement (a draft “recovery” strategy) purports to protect threatened caribou herds in northern Alberta, but instead hands over 95 percent of critical caribou habitat to tar sands development.  The strategy also endorses wolf kills since wolves are caribou predators, rather than doing what scientists recommend: protecting caribou habitat from development.   U.S. decision-makers need to pay close attention to the environmental legacy they are enabling by pushing expansion of tar sands extraction from under Alberta’s Boreal forest with new tar sands pipelines to the United States. Caribou are one more important reason why the U.S. government must say no to the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

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But let’s start with the basics.  Boreal woodland caribou are listed as threatened under Canadian federal law and could perish in 30 years in Alberta with unchecked tar sands development. According to the Alberta Wilderness Association, “Herds that once numbered in the thousands now have fewer than 100 members, and some herds may disappear entirely without immediate intervention.”  Some herds have declined by more than 70 percent during the past 15 years and there is abundant evidence that tar sands operations contribute to caribou population declines.  As of July 2010, there were 34 current or approved tar sands projects with dozens of proposed projects within the herds’ ranges.

The Canadian governments are not adhering to their own laws

In June 2011, the Pembina Institute and the Alberta Wilderness Association, and three First Nations (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Beaver Lake Cree Nation, and Enoch Cree Nation that have traditionally hunted boreal caribou) sued the federal government and won under its endangered species law forcing the Canadian Minister of the Environment Peter Kent to deliver on a four years’ overdue recovery strategy. “Going to court is the only course of action left…without immediate protection, entire herds of this iconic species will disappear,” according to Ecojustice lawyers for the case.

The federal government was expected to recommend a “recovery strategy” with a goal to achieve self-sustainable local populations to the extent possible across Canada.  The primary problem for these northern Alberta herds has been forestry and energy development that has been slowly rapidly and fragmenting the land base needed for caribou survival.  Today, the one of the main drivers of habitat disturbance to many Alberta caribou herds’ survival in northeastern Alberta is tar sands development.

A dismal “recovery” plan: Remove caribou habitat and slaughter wolves

But despite this goal, the draft recovery strategy from the Canadian government released last week was dismal on all counts.  Rather than set aside and protect the most compromised caribou herds’ habitat from tar sands development, the Government of Canada has proposed to allow 95 percent of their habitat to be lost. “It’s astonishing to see the government setting the bar so low with its draft recovery plan,” said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute.  “The plan gives the appearance of doing something but the details read ‘business as usual’ for Alberta oilsands, oil and gas and forestry,” said Cliff Wallis of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

Add insult to injury, the wolves will also suffer under this plan – thousands of them. Incredibly, the federal government – rather than set aside habitat for these animals – will endorse killing wolves.  "Predator control has been chosen," Environment Minister Peter Kent said in an interview Friday. "That bothers me a great deal. It certainly disturbs me that 100 wolves have to be killed to protect four caribou calves."

Alberta has already quietly tried this approach on one small herd in the province, killing 500 wolves in the past few years with strychinine and aerial gunning.  Under the draft strategy, the slaughter could now be spread to an area over 10 times larger.  But wolves are not the root of the problem.  In a recent study reported in the New York Times, scientists reported that tar sands development is far more of a problem to caribou that wolves.  Tar sands development includes roads, seismic lines, and well pads all of which encroach on caribou habitat.  According to Dr. Samuel Wasser, a professor of biologically at the University of Washington, “Everything we’ve done suggests that wolf removal is not the best approach to this problem.”

While the federal government has clearly fallen down on the job, so has the province of Alberta.  The provincial government has failed miserably at protecting the caribou range allowing a level of land disturbance that is significant.  Even the Government of Canada has acknowledged this:  “Overall, Alberta has not, to date, effectively managed the cumulative effects within caribou range and has not applied appropriate mitigation (e.g. habitat restoration, minimizing footprint) in a coordinated landscape-level approach to conserve caribou.”  The Government of Alberta’s tar sands land use plan will do almost nothing to improve on this situation.  As my colleague Elizabeth Shope pointed out recently this land use plan caters significantly to industry interests than curbs the impacts of tar sands development.

Buyer beware

There is little doubt that the U.S. appetite for tar sands feeds the insatiable thirst for this dirty fuel.  The Governments of Canada and provincial government of Alberta will do almost anything to ensure nothing gets in the way of making this dirty oil available to the United States.  But there is something that can be done – cut off the demand.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has an opportunity to say “no” to yet another tar sands pipeline that would run from Canada to the United States.  She and President Obama can deny the presidential permit for this transboundary pipeline and send a strong message to Canada that the U.S. does not want this dirty oil.  In the meantime, the Government of Canada needs to hear loud and clear from Americans and Canadians: this “recovery plan” takes a major step backwards leaving both caribou and wolves at risk.  It is time for a re-write that sets aside the critical habitat needed to protect the very survival of these herds.

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