Last year, the Alberta government proposed methods to protect the province’s threatened woodland caribou. Draft plans for the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds north of Jasper called for all land in their range that had been disturbed by seismic lines — corridors cut through the forest for oil and gas exploration — to be restored within the next five years. These cut lines have provided easy access into the forest for the wolves who prey on the caribou and placed the long-term survival of caribou in jeopardy.
The draft contains an aggressive restoration plan, ensuring 10,000 km of legacy seismic lines are reclaimed by 2022. The government will manage restoration, funding it through levies collected from current land users. However, these draft plans weren’t inspired by Alberta Government altruism. After decades of provincial inaction, Environment Canada issued the Federal Recovery for Woodland Caribou Strategy in 2012, requiring Alberta to submit a complete plan by October 2017 to provide these animals with undisturbed habitat within at least 65% of each of the 12 remaining herds’ ranges. As almost all woodland caribou ranges are less than 50% intact, and most are in much worse shape than that, the government has its work cut out for it. According to Environment Canada, caribou in Alberta are unlikely or very unlikely to be self-sustaining, due to high levels of habitat disturbance.
It has also been indicated that the restoration methods proposed in the first draft plans are not likely to be repeated for the remaining caribou herds in Alberta. When the Little Smoky and A La Peche plans were announced, the Pembina Institute commented on the opportunity for range plans to use conservation offsets to stimulate restoration within caribou ranges and meet the federal recovery strategy’s requirements.
“Conservation offsets” — also known as biodiversity offsets, or conservation allowances — are actions a company takes to provide physical compensation for significant adverse impacts of development. If a company cannot prevent or mitigate the adverse impacts expected from its proposed project, then it would be required to compensate by restoring and conserving land elsewhere. Restoration would be at a higher ratio and restore more land than the project directly disturbs. With the right elements in place, a conservation offset system can provide the toolkit Alberta needs to move restoration forward now.
If Alberta is looking for methods to address caribou conservation, mandatory conservation offsets are appealing in the face of our looming deadline. At minimum, if all creators of new disturbance within caribou ranges are required to compensate the caribou by restoring additional areas of habitat, this may get the ball moving in the right direction to address the footprint already on the landscape – without the government having to pay the bill or manage restoration itself.
However, if we take it one step further, there is even more benefit in allowing mandatory conservation offsets to be “banked” through some kind of offset exchange. Offset banking creates a more flexible system to meet requirements by allowing third parties to restore caribou habitat to generate offset credits, which can then be traded to companies required to compensate for new disturbance.
In our 2008 report, “Catching Up: Conservation and Biodiversity Offsets in Alberta’s Boreal Forest,” we examined the merits of regulated offsets with banking and compared this approach to voluntary offsets, regulated offsets without banking, and a cap-and-trade system for offsets. We also interviewed a wide range of informed stakeholders on their perspectives on each of these options. They clearly preferred offset banking, because it should reduce company costs, encourage innovation, and trigger restoration on the ground even before new disturbance is approved.
Industry is ready to play its part to restore caribou range. Almost a decade ago, members of the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative wrote to the Government of Alberta stating their support for a regulated conservation offset system that allows banking.
If government permits additional disturbance within ranges, any approval should include the caveat that there will be a net benefit for caribou through habitat restoration. The British Columbia government is ahead in this regard in providing direction to oil and gas development in caribou habitat in that province. You can learn about its approach here.
I recently presented a webinar to the Alberta Association of Conservation Offsets, a consortium of industry and conservation organizations interested in this policy tool. I highlighted the most effective way to provide immediate direction to the Alberta Energy Regulator to require conservation offsets in caribou range through its powers under Section 67 of the Responsible Energy Development Act.
While caribou range plans will also need to include establishment of permanent conservation areas and long-term planning, it seems inevitable that mandatory restoration through regulated conservation offsets must be implemented across Alberta.