The government of Alberta recently released a draft Caribou range plan that falls short of adequate projections for the Little Smoky and A La Peche caribou herds.
The plan kicks short term protections down the road in favor of the logging and oil and gas industry. Human activities have already disturbed 95% of the Little Smoky caribou range and drastic efforts are needed immediately to curb potential localized extinction of these caribou herds.
The Alberta government must implement an improved conservation plan which identifies short and long term caribou protections, reclaims already disturbed landscape, and implements realistic conservation goals which put caribou, not industry, first.
While the Alberta government ultimately has the final determination for the caribou range plan, the real success of any plan will depend on the willingness of the logging and fossil fuel industry to support and implement strong efforts for long term caribou protection.
1. Little Smoky and A La Peche Caribou Herds in Rapid Decline
For long-term survival of caribou herds, greater than 65% of their range must remain undisturbed. In other words, caribou are extremely sensitive to changes to their range habitat.
Scientists study caribou population using radio collars and models. These are powerful tools for understanding caribou herd's population over time, specifically by understanding the female and calf life spans and behaviors.
However, extensive logging and oil and gas activities fragment the natural forest ecosystems, which makes caribou and their calves vulnerable to predators. These activities have resulted in these herds being listed as some of the most threatened in Canada.
The interactive map shows the range habit for the Little Smoky (Red) and A La Peche (Blue) herds in western Alberta. Zoom-in to see the disturbances and click on the boundaries below for more information about the Caribou population declines.
2. Watch how humans have altered caribou habitat
Logging and oil and gas have modified the forest so drastically, that it can be observed from space. Image from Google Earth Engine
3. Issues with Alberta's proposed caribou range management plan
The draft caribou range management plan offers little details for identifying meaningful protections for long term caribou habitat. Many of the proposed activities are too vague, unclear, or distant to immediately address the rapidly decreasing caribou populations.
For example, vague descriptions with little details are provided in the plans within 5 years. It even includes continuation of harvesting activities over the next five years, in order to stop mountain pine beetle (MPB), which is misleading since logging activities do not necessarily target pine beetle trees. This will further disturb and fragment caribou habitat, one of the primary factors for declining herd populations.
Additionally the draft caribou plan will continue wolf culling, a highly controversial policy were wolves are shot from helicopters and poisoned (warning: graphic photo) to prevent them from preying upon displaced caribou. NRDC has commented on the pitfalls of this policy in the past, which ultimately will fail to protect caribou without meaningful land management.
The proposal also calls for a "Caribou Rearing Facility", otherwise known as a caribou zoo. This idea is a major set-back for meaningful habitat restoration efforts. Caribou, wolves, and other predators have co-existed in the wild for millennia, and only recently, due to human industrial activities have caribou faced potential extinction.
4. Industry needs to get on board to save caribou
In Alberta, conservation decisions are a combined effort between local communities, industry, government officials, and other conservation groups. However, when industry waters down and disrupts these negotiations, it creates a difficult atmosphere to enact positive change.
According to the Alberta government, three logging companies operate forest management agreements (FMA) within the Little smoky caribou range boundary:
- Canadian Forest Products Ltd.
- ANC Timber Ltd. (Alberta Newsprint Company)
- West Fraser Mills Ltd (Hinton)
The oil and gas industry has a major role in the restoration efforts. According to CPAWS, there are dozens of lease holders and hundreds of oil and gas leases. These contribute to significant forest fractionation and loss of functional caribou habitat.
The Alberta government has yet to finalize this plan. However, a meaningful caribou range protection plan hinges on meaningful operational changes for existing industrial use and increased land restoration efforts by the logging and oil and gas industries. The draft range plan fails to adequately protect caribou habitat. Worse, it encourages future industrial development, while the range is grossly out of natural balance. It's critical that all parties step up to create a meaningful, timely restoration strategy. The world is watching how Alberta manages the threatened caribou.