Like all wildlife in the province (i.e., not residing within federal lands), the management of woodland caribou is the responsibility of the provincial government. Woodland caribou management is directed, in general, by the Wildlife Act, and more specifically by a series of management plans.
Summary of Formal Woodland Caribou Management Plans
- 1978 Caribou Management Outline for Alberta (Fish and Wildlife)
- 1981 Proposal to Designate Alberta’s Caribou as a Threatened Species (Fish and Wildlife)
- 1986 Woodland Caribou Provincial Restoration Plan (Fish and Wildlife)
- 1991 Operating Guidelines for Industrial Activity in Caribou Range (Alberta Energy)
- 1993 Strategy for Conservation of Woodland Caribou in Alberta (Fish and Wildlife)
- 2005 Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan (Fish and Wildlife) (pdf 1141KB)
The most recent impetus to manage caribou is based on the work of the 2002 Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Team. This committee was formed in accordance with Alberta’s commitment to protect endangered species. This commitment stems from:
- the 1992 agreements contained within the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk,
- mechanisms added to the provincial Wildlife Act in 1998, and
- the legal designation of caribou as an At Risk species by the province in 1985 and by the federal government in 1984.
In 2005, this committee released the Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan, which was adopted by the provincial government, with the exception of a notable recommendation for areas occupied by caribou herds in immediate risk of extirpation:
A moratorium on further mineral and timber resource allocation (sales) should be put in place until a range plan is completed, evaluated, and implemented. It is anticipated that this process will take a maximum of one year from the date of range team formation.
Alberta’s commitment to the 1992 National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk clearly states that a “lack of full scientific certainty must not be used as a reason to delay measures to avoid or minimize threats to species at risk.” This principle is reiterated in the Recovery Plan itself. Unfortunately, industrial activity has continued to occur throughout caribou ranges.
Other strategies from the 2005 Recovery Plan
- Define the status of individual herds (see map)
- Implement management strategies based on herd status
- Create multi-stakeholder landscape teams to devise management plans for individual herds
- Create habitat planning targets
- Create access management and industrial operating guidelines
- Manage caribou predators and competitors
- Manage direct, human-caused mortality
- Monitor and evaluate the plan in 2008
The Issue of Habitat
The 2005 Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan does not mention any initiative to define critical habitat. Under the Species at Risk Act, Section 49(1):
“An action plan must include, with respect to the area to which the action plan relates, … (a) an identification of the species’ critical habitat, to the extent possible, based on the best available information and consistent with the recovery strategy, and examples of activities that are likely to result in its destruction.”
The management plan does, however, recognize the need to establish habitat protection goals:
- “Caribou range planning recommendations must be based upon clearly defined targets for caribou habitat supply. An absence of habitat targets will result in unfocused planning activities, may not allow for a sufficient supply of caribou habitat to be identified or provided (through management of human activities and wildfire), and may not adequately permit assessment and management of negative cumulative effects.”
- “Caribou habitat planning targets must be completed, and allowed to form a fundamental basis of caribou range planning recommendations. Caribou habitat planning targets should supply recommended direction on the type, amount, and spatial arrangement of habitat (i.e., landscape composition) required within caribou ranges in order to sustain caribou herds.” (p. 21)
It is unclear if the Recovery Plan has the appropriate mechanisms to protect habitat. Rather, the mechanism for ensuring adequate habitat amount is given by a mathematical formula:
Y = -0.258a - 0.212b + 1.140
Y = finite rate of caribou population increase (λ),
a = percentage area of anthropogenic footprint (buffered on all sides by 250 m) within caribou range, and
b = percentage area of caribou range burned by recent (50 years or less) wildfire.
If caribou populations are to recover, then habitat must clearly be identified and protected from industrial activity. Theoretical formulas and models can add to the planning process, but unless there are genuine mechanisms to regulate industrial activity within critical caribou habitat, the probability of caribou extirpation in Alberta will continue to grow.
Furthermore, a lack of adequate habitat protection is cause for the implementation of the more severe, regulatory tools contained within the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). SARA could finally force government and industry to adhere to decades-old land-use management plans for the protection of caribou. Deliberations over the implementation of SARA in the case of woodland caribou protection are currently under way.
The overall theme of caribou management in Alberta has not been the failure to identify the causes of the caribou’s decline; rather, there has been a slow and aversive response to taking the necessary steps that would stem their decline. Since 1978, at least five official management plans have been created, often through multi-stakeholder committees, all of which have included recommendations that would allow the caribou populations to recover.
Yet, changes to land management practices on the ground have been, and continue to be, scarce. The most recent plan, The Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan, does not specifically address habitat protection; rather it deflects this responsibility to smaller “landscape” planning units.
This devolution of responsibility will further increase the delays in active caribou protection. This point is made clear within the Recovery Plan itself:
“It should be noted that some members of the Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Team voiced strong concerns that range teams and range planning could result in undue delays in the delivery of necessary recovery actions for woodland caribou. The Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Team expects that range plan review, approval and implementation would proceed in a timely manner. Range plans must be completed and recovery actions must be implemented promptly if caribou recovery is to be achieved in Alberta.” (p. 16)
Remarkably, after millions of dollars of research and almost 30 years of robust studies on caribou habitat, demographic, movement and population ecology, the government is still reliant on “one more committee” to solve this problem.
Dr. Stan Boutin from the University of Alberta, the pre-eminent researcher of woodland caribou in Alberta, clearly states that caribou protection requires the restriction of industrial activities: there is no having it both ways. As these committees continue to deliberate what provincial biologists, locals and AWA have already known for decades, the probability of caribou extirpation grows with each new clearcut, well, pipeline and road.
From early reports by provincial field biologists in the 1930s to the most recent management plan, it is well known that caribou conservation requires changes to current planning and operating procedures for industrial development in caribou habitat.
Whether these recommended changes stem from the wisdom of regional biologists or complex multi-stakeholder meetings, decision-makers in government have consistently failed to incorporate adequate measures to protect caribou.
Indeed, in 1981, Michael Bloomfield, then a provincial biologist and caribou management coordinator for Alberta, stated that to protect caribou, “all that is required is the resolve and inter-departmental commitment to solve the problem.”
Each management plan has included aspects of the following the following recommendations:
- Coordinate resource activities such that forestry and hydrocarbon development are not reproducing unnecessary access,
e.g., Alberta Energy (1991: 4): “Forestry, Lands and Wildlife [i.e. the government] will ensure all resource extraction activity is coordinated to minimize negative impacts on the caribou habitat.”
- Restrict human access to caribou habitat via road closures and blocking seismic lines
e.g., Fish and Wildlife (1986: 39): “In important caribou habitat, access restrictions may be essential.”
- Protect habitat
e.g., Fish and Wildlife (1978): “ Establish wildlife sanctuaries, preserves, reservations, and management areas to ensure caribou survival.”