Designing an Alberta-made caribou survival plan Six recommendations to the Alberta government to help our woodland caribou recover as another deadline looms

Blog - March 15, 2018 - By Nikki Way

Credit: Jillian Cooper

This past October, Alberta missed an important federal deadline to protect wildlife — a deadline many Albertans may not have even heard of. It was set five years ago when Alberta, and every province with herds of caribou listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act, was required to lay out a plan to protect critical habitat and set the species on a path to recovery.

Alberta has 15 ranges of both boreal and southern mountain caribou listed as threatened. After missing the October cut-off date, Alberta released a Draft Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan in December 2017, but instead of providing a clear path of how habitat will be protected, the draft plan is just a high-level, broad overview of all ranges in the province.

The next federal deadline is in April. At this time, the provincial government is required to demonstrate it has a plan to put 65 per cent of each herd’s habitat on a trajectory of being undisturbed — sufficiently protecting caribou habitat. This is a crucial and indisputable element of Alberta’s obligations under the Act. Alberta is legally required by the Act, to table a specific plan to restore much of the habitat containing human disturbance. Currently, many of the province's ranges are in rough shape, with few near the minimum target due to decades of industrial expansion.

Stakeholders from industry, local communities, First Nations and environmental groups have been meeting this week in Edmonton (the second meeting in a month) to discuss scenarios that could put the province on the right path. Despite the complexity, there are solutions that could be anchors for success of soon-to-be final plans. But, in the end government must devise a plan to move away from business as usual, protecting both caribou habitat and Albertans' livelihoods — instead of one over the other.

If the province fails to demonstrate that woodland caribou or its critical habitat are protected, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, Catherine McKenna, is obligated by the Act to recommend that the Governor in Council makes an order to protect caribou. An order could mean uncomfortable results for Alberta, and is certainly the least desirable outcome for all parties. One only has to look to the federal government’s 2013 Emergency Order for the Protection of the Greater Sage-Grouse issued under the Harper government to see how failing to find solutions to this problem could lead to a strict outcome precluding future industrial activity. Despite the missed October 2017 cut-off date, the Alberta government still has the opportunity to demonstrate a workable plan to save our caribou population, and avoid forcing the federal minister to act.

Solutions do exist, but Alberta is running out of time to get this right. Despite what some have suggested, there isn’t an option to further delay or to neglect several critical elements of any "made-in-Alberta" plan.

Here are six recommendations the Pembina Institute hopes will be implemented by Alberta to ensure we'll meet our caribou obligations, prevent federal intervention and begin to give the province's caribou a real chance at survival:

1.) All proposed conservation areas should be officially designated as Wildland Provincial Parks

Alberta's Draft Range Plan proposes almost 2.5 million hectares of proposed conservation areas in nine of the 15 ranges. All have been previously announced or are an expansion of current parks. If these are legislated, this is a great start.

Provincial wildland park designations make sense as the appropriate route to permanently protect a portion of each caribou range. Establishing these protected areas means caribou habitat would be safeguarded from new disturbance, but still provide the flexibility to allow for recreational activities. There are also opportunities for these conservation areas to be co-managed with nearby Indigenous communities, allowing the continued expression of treaty rights for First Nations.

Importantly, these wildland parks would be logical candidate areas to prioritize restoration of old seismic lines and other industrial features. As new development would be restricted, designating these areas as wildland parks would provide certainty of little to no new disturbance undermining any restoration efforts in the designated zone.

This certainty is essential to fostering confidence in Alberta's ability to protect critical caribou habitat. Without this, it is unimaginable any new forestry or energy development could continue within caribou habitat with legitimacy.  

2.) Set restoration timelines, targets and mechanisms for caribou ranges

Alberta needs to ensure restoration starts immediately, as returning the land to a state where it can sustain caribou will take decades. According to federal standards, a stand of trees planted today will take 40 years to be considered adequate caribou habitat.

Additionally, if the province is going to allow any new habitat to be disturbed, the amount of restoration being completed needs to outnumber the amount of habitat being lost. To ensure Alberta is on track, restoration targets need to be set for five-year periods until all disturbance has been formally deemed restored. We need a more visionary, long-term schedule that keeps restoration advancing as a top priority.

It remains to be seen how this restoration should be paid for, but there are means to ensure the industries who benefited the most from decades of development contribute to cleaning it up. Conservation offsets can be a way to ensure that if energy development continues, creators of any new disturbance contribute to clean up.

3.) Complete management plans for each range

Currently, Alberta has only released a single draft range plan providing a high-level overview of how the government may complete range planning — but this isn’t enough. All 15 ranges have specific features and needs, making it essential that each has a tailored regional access management plan. Unambiguous plans need to be approved for each range with outlines on how industry and other users will minimize their impact in caribou ranges, in places where they are permitted to continue operating.

4.) Clear coordination across ministries and agencies

Caribou planning is complex and influenced by many land uses. Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Alberta Energy, and the Alberta Energy Regulator need to work together to ensure the federal obligations for caribou habitat are being respected and maintained across all ministries. It is imperative individual decisions don’t undermine Alberta's overall caribou plan and dig us further into the hole we already find ourselves in.

For example, annual allowable cuts for forestry as well as zonation plans for oil and gas companies need to demonstrate how and when the 65 per cent undisturbed threshold will be achieved in 50-70 years. All relevant ministries and agencies will need clarity from these plans to ensure their individual approvals align with caribou objectives.

Alberta Energy should play an important role by not reselling petroleum and natural gas (PNG) and oilsands leases within caribou ranges that revert to the Crown when those leases expire.

5.) Maps to demonstrate how protection, restoration, access and development, and zonation plans will be achieved over space and time

There needs to be maps prepared for each range detailing successive 10-year periods showing how the restoration, access and development, and zonation plans will empower us to achieve our 65 per cent undisturbed threshold in upcoming decades. The maps should include conservation areas, restoration, and industry use, expansion and zoning – all key elements of successful caribou plans.

6.) Make requirements enforceable and embed range plans into law

This isn't the first time Alberta has made a "plan for caribou". Over the years, Alberta has created many management strategies and plans lacking teeth to be enforced and ensure success. This has allowed Albertans to find ourselves in the dire state we are facing today. We can't afford to continue draft policies that aren't enforceable and aren't designed to function.

Clear enforceable rules could be accomplished in a few ways. A possibility would be to include creating caribou range plans as sub-regional plans under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. It could be outlined in the regulatory details of each land-use plan and how range plans will be enforced. This is a clear option for ranges under current land-use plans, and for those with strategiescurrently in development.  


The federal government signalled April 2018 as the new deadline for the Alberta government to table its range plans. If the province continues to hesitate to protect its wildlife, the federal government is likely to find inadequate protection and will be legally required to act. After five years of indecisiveness, time is running out.

Nikki Way
Nikki Way

Nikki was a senior analyst for the Pembina Institute until 2020 with expertise on fossil fuel development.


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