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Federal recovery strategy confirms protecting habitat is key to protecting caribou

Published Oct. 15, 2012 by Simon Dyer

Simon Dyer

Late on the Friday before the Thanksgiving long weekend, after many workers in the Eastern time zone had already called it a day, the federal government finally released its long overdue recovery strategy for the woodland caribou, the boreal population that ranges from Yukon to Newfoundland. Herds living in northern Alberta are currently listed as ‘threatened’ populations under the Species at Risk Act.

From an Alberta-based perspective, the final recovery strategy improves on the previous draft, in which the federal government proposed to write off most of the habitat for Alberta’s herds and instead promoted predator management (such as killing wolves) as a way to artificially prop up caribou numbers. Rumour has it that the number of submissions Environment Canada received from outraged Canadians — 19,000 according to some sources — contributed to strengthening the protection plan for woodland caribou.

The final strategy requires 65 per cent of habitat in a species’ range (the total geographic area where the caribou live) to be protected undisturbed, which offers a 60 per cent chance that a local population would be self-sustaining. In ranges where less than 65 per cent of boreal caribou habitat remains undisturbed, the strategy requires the disturbed habitat to be restored to meet the 65 per cent protection threshold for the range.

Now, the government’s recovery strategy on its own is not enough to protect Alberta’s most vulnerable caribou herds — it has not resulted in any changes on the ground, meaning an emergency protection order from the federal government is still necessary for some Alberta herds.

Nonetheless, this habitat target is an important first step, especially in northeastern Alberta, where poorly managed development over the past decades has already reduced or degraded the habitat in caribou ranges to a point where the land is no longer able to support sustainable caribou populations. In the four major caribou ranges underlain by oilsands deposits, just 24 per cent of caribou habitat (on average) remains undisturbed — far below the recovery plan target of 65 per cent.

 The percentage of undisturbed habitat for many of Alberta’s caribou herds is already significantly lower than the target outlined in the new federal recovery strategy.

The challenge for the oilsands industry, and particularly in situ oilsands developers, is that while the industry has aggressive expansion plans, the habitat limit for responsible development has already been exceeded. While industry has been willing to promote temporary measures such as caribou penning or predator control to stabilize caribou populations, conserving adequate caribou habitat in each range is the key to seeing long-term recovery. The recovery strategy’s focus on the need to conserve habitat is a welcome change, even though it changes nothing on the ground in the short term and temporary population management measures may still be necessary for the most threatened herds.

Some companies have leased oilsands rights in the ranges of a threatened species like woodland caribou, either gambling that the federal and provincial governments would not follow through on their responsibility to protect caribou or having determined their facility design would maintain adequate protection levels. For those companies (see below) the new federal recovery strategy clearly shows that further impacts to caribou range are inconsistent with the science that informed the recovery strategy.

Company

Leases in caribou habitat (km2)

Sunshine

3155

Cenovus

3050

Canadian Natural

2847

Athabasca

2740

Koch

2226

Conocophillips

1975

Table: Top six oil sands companies holding leases in caribou ranges that do not meet the Federal Recovery Strategy critical habitat threshold (Source: Global Forest Watch Canada 2012)

Government and industry will need to take at least two of the following three measures to ensure oilsands development complies with a 65 per cent intact habitat target.

1)    Greatly increase the area of caribou habitat protected from industrial activity, preferably through the establishment of legislated conservation areas. The new conservation areas identified in Alberta’s Lower Athabasca Regional Plan represent a good start, but much more will need to be done. The Government of Alberta has withdrawn 1.4 million hectares of caribou habitat from future energy tenure in northern Alberta (see map here) in the Lower Peace region, and researchers at the University of Alberta have conducted substantial research on the most effective ways to develop a comprehensive conservation strategy for caribou ranges in Alberta.

2)    Make further development of caribou habitat contingent on restoring existing habitat disturbances at a rate far greater than the clearing of new habitat. The Oil Sands Leadership Initiative has done some interesting work in this area, but such an approach would need to become a regulated requirement and accelerate substantially to make a difference for caribou habitat in the long term.

3)    Slow the rate of oilsands development and industrial activity to protect caribou habitat. While obvious, this solution challenges the Alberta government’s decision to lease entire caribou ranges for oilsands development without considering caribou habitat requirements, which were well known before the release of the federal government’s recovery strategy.

The release of the final recovery strategy is an important milestone – even if it was delivered five years after the legal deadline. Of course, it could be years still before we see any real action taken on the ground to protect and restore Alberta’s caribou habitat. The recovery strategy allows for range-specific plans to be developed over the next three to five years, but that delay is unacceptable for Alberta’s declining herds, where emergency protections are necessary. The Government of Alberta now has the responsibility to quickly develop management plans that are consistent with the federal strategy.

The road leading up to this point has been long and unpredictable, with First Nations and environmental organizations being forced to use the courts to get the federal government to live up to its legal obligations to protect caribou. A lot of time has been wasted that could have been used to work collaboratively to make progress on the actual work of protecting caribou habitat in Canada. Now that we have a federal strategy in place, there is no time to lose in developing a plan specific to Alberta’s woodland caribou herds, where emergency protections are still warranted.

It might seem obvious, but it’s taken more than a decade since caribou were originally listed as a 'threatened' species to acknowledge a principle that our children learn in elementary school: if you want to protect a species, you need to protect its habitat.

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