October 29, 2020
The Caribou Mountains are a large, biologically rich series of plateaus in far northern Alberta that rise high above the surrounding lowlands.
AWA believes that the Caribou Mountains require increased protection and thoughtful management in order to protect the natural integrity of this sensitive and diverse subarctic ecosystem.
The Caribou Mountains are a large saucer-shaped plateau in far northern Alberta that rises approximately 700 m above the surrounding lowlands with the highest elevation point being 1,030 m. Situated directly west of the Wood Buffalo National Park, AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern is 13405 km2 of remote wilderness that includes the Caribou Mountains Wildland Provincial Park. Located in Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region, the Caribou Mountains’ plateau is characterized by a gently rolling landscape covered with various types of tree stands interspersed with large depressions and wetlands. This landscape also has areas of discontinuous permafrost that reach various depths. The Caribou Mountains host a broad range of plant communities, and provides core habitat for woodland caribou in addition to a variety of bird species.
AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern is directly north of the hamlet of Fort Vermillion and east of the town of High Level. Sporadic timber harvesting, historic seismic lines, and off-highway vehicle recreation has resulted in the fragmentation and deterioration of this fragile landscape.
AWA’s Caribou Mountains consists of public lands which are largely unprotected with the exception the Caribou Mountains Wildland Park. Established in 2001, the park is 5,910km2 in size and is the most northern and largest provincial park in Alberta. Lands outside of this park within AWA’s Area of Concern are currently being developed and managed under a multiple land use designation.
Currently there is no broad management framework in place for land uses within the Caribou Mountains. Once completed, this landscape will fall within the provincial government’s Lower Peace Regional Plan.
In the recent past, attempts have been made by a local committee to initiate and develop a management plan that would emphasize the responsible use and development of the landscape. The Caribou Mountains Draft Management Plan (1994) was created with the intent of protecting natural features such as water, wildlife, permafrost and natural resources in a harmonious manner with the development of recreational and industrial activities. Categories for important features contained relevant objectives and guidelines to direct all land-use activities and support the conservation objectives of the Management Plan. The plan was meant to be updated every five years through a full public review. While any change to the intent of the plan requires public review, minor changes can be requested and administered by the Peace River Regional Resource Management Committee.
The Caribou Mountains Wildland Provincial Park is managed under the Provincial Parks Act, with intentions to: “preserve natural heritage of provincial significance or higher, while supporting outdoor recreation, heritage tourism, and natural heritage appreciation activities that depend upon and are compatible with environmental protection” (Alberta Parks 2001).
In order to conserve the complex and sensitive natural features residing within the Caribou Mountains,
• Special consideration must be taken pertaining to all land uses and their potential cumulative effects on the ecological integrity of the region and surrounding landscapes.
• Land uses must adhere to an ecosystem based ethic that promotes conservation objectives for all natural features and wildlife ranges residing within the area.
• The extension of formal protection to the entirety of AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern.
AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern is composed of 13405 km2 of Alberta’s Boreal Forest contouring the western boundary of the Wood Buffalo National Park, and is just north of the hamlet of Fort Vermillion. This landscape can be accessed from Highway 35 directly northwest of the town of High Level.
Most of the Caribou Mountains landscape resides within the Peace Slave River Basin, with a smaller northern section of this region falling within the Buffalo River Basin. In some areas of this vast plateau, the drainage is relatively restricted which has resulted in the formation of numerous large, deep and cold lakes which includes Wentzel, Eva, Pitchimi and the largest, Margaret Lake. Other areas of the plateau have steep-banked fast-flowing rivers that drain westward into Hay River, which in turn drain into Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River. These rivers include Ponton, Whitesand and Yates River. Other rivers such as the Buffalo and Wentzel River flow eastward into the Peace-Slave River Basin.
Most of the bedrock that underlies the Caribou Mountains are Cretaceous shales and sandstones with some of the higher elevation hills being crowned with Tertiary gravels. Topography of the landscape is undulating to gently rolling with many slopes of the plateau being unstable and experiencing a significant amount of slumping.
Almost the entirety of this landscape, including the Caribou Mountains Wildland Provincial Park, is located within Alberta’s Boreal Subarctic Natural Subregion which attributes most of its provincial significance. AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern has many natural features including high plant diversity, numerous old-growth forests, various wetlands and expansive areas of permafrost, which render this landscape its provincial significance. This region also provides vital habitat for a variety of wildlife species including at risk species within Alberta such as wood bison and Woodland caribou.
Caribou Mountains Wildland Provincial Park
1) Margaret Lake:Contains a variety of fish species including whitefish, trout, pike, and burbot, and has been identified as a breeding site for red-throated loons in addition to containing the partial ranges of the grey-cheeked thrush, mew gulls and American sparrows.
2) The Caribou Mountains Escarpment: This geomorphological feature has been identified as a unique landform and is considered a glacial refugium due to the high flora diversity observed. There is also a considerable diversity of fauna species supported on this saucer-like plateau.
3) Caribou Mountains Peat Plateau Bog: one of the best representatives of this Subarctic wetland type in Alberta, and provides important habitat for various waterfowl species.
4) Caribou Mountains Northern Ribbed Fens: The area around Horseshoe Lake has been identified as one of the most extensive patterned fen complexes in Alberta. Similarly to the Caribou Mountains Peat Plateau Bog, these fens also provide staging and breeding grounds for many waterfowl species and are a vital part of the Woodland caribou range.
AWA’s Caribou Mountain Area of Concern falls within Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region and is almost entirely composed of the Boreal Subarctic Natural Subregion. The Lower Boreal Highlands Natural Subregion contours the plateau area along the slopes and river valleys, while a small northeastern section of the Area of Concern is characterized by the Northern Mixedwood Natural Subregion of Alberta. The southern tip of AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern resides within the Central Mixedwood Natural Subregion.
Because the majority of AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern remained unglaciated during the last ice age, the plateau has remnant communities of lichens, vascular plants and mosses that are less common throughout the nation. A survey conducted in 1997 demonstrated the high level of diversity found within the landscape which included: 73 lichen species, 61 bryophytes, and over 230 vascular plants, with some rare and unusual species such as the Northern ground-cone (Boschniakia rossica) growing along the west slopes of the mountains, and is the only known location for this species in Alberta. The lichen diversity is considered to be one of the highest in the world, and serves as a critical winter food source for Woodland caribou. The lichen also plays an integral role in the vegetative ground layer that insulates the discontinuous layer of permafrost which is estimated to be anywhere between 1 to 3 m below the surface.
Central Mixedwood: This subregion is mostly comprised of a mix of deciduous tree stands containing aspen and aspen/white spruce forests in lower elevations, while white spruce and jack pine occupy higher elevations. This subregion is located on the southern extremity of AWA’s Caribou Mountain Area of Concern just below the Lower Boreal Highlands Natural Subregion. Canadian buffaloberry, low brush cranberry, and prickly rose are common to the understory. A mix of wild sarsaparilla, hairy wild rye, and tall lungwort are featured in herb communities in addition to feathermosses.
This natural subregion only occupies a small northeast segment of the Caribou Mountains, and is delineated by lower elevation black spruce bogs and fens, with some areas having permafrost. Labrador tea, bog cranberry, cloudberry and peatmoss are common understory species found in this area. In higher elevation sites, boreal mixedwood forest stands are common and include species such as aspen, balsam poplar, and white and black spruce although they are more rare.
Lower Boreal Highlands: This vegetative community is commonly found along the slopes and river valleys of the Caribou Mountains. Coniferous forests stands are common within this subregion, and are dominated by jack pine, lodgepole pine or hybrids of the two. In areas with more drainage, slopes are generally forested by aspen, balsam poplar, black and white spruce. Common understory shrub species include prickly rose, green alder, and low-brush cranberry. Tall lungwort, fireweed, bunchberry, and marsh reedgrass are common to the herb layer.
Boreal Subarctic: this subregion encompasses most of the plateau of the Caribou Mountains. This natural subregion is characterized by open stands of black spruce with bogs with moss and lichen groundcover. There are also areas of permafrost found on some of the elevated points of the plateau. In lower lying areas, collapsed scar bogs can be found which are covered by sheathed cotton grass, and peatmosses. Cooler climates within this region result in a considerably slow and restrictive growing season. Low temperatures, water-saturated organic and moss layers, in addition to lower sun angles, all contribute to the development of permafrost which impedes plant growth. Shrub layers generally consist of Labrador tea, cloudberry and green reindeer lichen.
This landscape has a considerable number of wetlands differing in form, but all play a significant part in providing important habitat to wildlife as well as essential ecological services. Slumping peatlands occur along the Ponton River with nearby lake shorelines exposing profiles of peat that are estimated to be up to 10 meters thick. Lichens and bryophytes have been documented as dominant vegetation found in black spruce peatlands which serve as an important food source for Woodland caribou. The Caribou Mountains also have various bogs, and palsas which are circular mounds of perennially frozen peat and mineral material. This landscape contains string flark fens which are commonly found to develop on the steep slopes of the plateau, characterized by narrow peaty ridges or “strings” that enclose open water pools or “flarks”.
The wilderness of the Caribou Mountains is home to many unique wildlife ranges within Alberta.
The Caribou Mountains are home to various waterfowl, shorebirds and birds of prey such as includes the gray-cheeked thrush, red-necked phalarope, American tree sparrow, mew gull, pacific loon, osprey, bald eagles and surf scoter. This region also contains one of the two known nesting sites for the red-throated loon, and is believed to be a “stop in area” for American white pelicans. Exotic wood warblers have also been documented in the Caribou Mountains.
Fish populations within the Caribou Mountains are limited by short growing seasons and deep and cold lakes located on the top of the plateau. Walleye, pike, lake trout and lake whitefish all dwell within lakes in addition to Arctic grayling which can also be found in rivers.
Furbearing mammals such as wolverines, mink, muskrats, beavers, and river otters have been documented in the area in addition to ungulates such as wood bison and Woodland caribou. Populations of moose and deer have also been observed within the Caribou Mountains.
Species At Risk
Wood Bison: It is estimated that a population size of a 120 individuals of wood bison live in the Wentzel Lake area. With the exception of Ronald Lake and the Bison Management Area in northwestern Alberta, which contain herds which are disease-free and are classified as endangered under the Wildlife Act, wood bison roaming outside of these boundaries can be hunted year-round. However, hunting of wood bison within Caribou Mountains Wildland Park is prohibited.
Woodland caribou: Woodland caribou are designated as threatened under the Alberta Wildlife Act and the Species At Risk Act. The Caribou Mountain herd’s range is occupied by the boreal ecotype of Woodland caribou which extends throughout AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern and into Wood Buffalo National Park. The caribou frequent the variety of vegetative communities located on the plateau with a particular emphasis on old growth forest or treed fens with heavy lichen cover.
The Caribou Mountains is the traditional territory of the Beaver First Nation, one of only two Danezaa bands in Alberta. The Little Red River Cree and Tallcree First Nations also have traditional territories in this wilderness with several historic and prehistoric aboriginal settlements being documented in and around the plateau’s lakes. The names of some of the Caribou Mountain lakes, such as Margaret and Eva, are said to be given after the daughters of a local Little Red River Cree trapper.
There are many recreational activities that exist within AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern. , including backcountry camping, hunting, wildlife viewing, fishing, trapping, guided outfitting, birding, cross country, and OHV riding on designated trails only.
Due the isolation of this wilderness and the lack of collected biological data, the Caribou Mountains have undergone a significant amount of industrial exploration and development with little regard to the additive impacts of those activities on the ecological integrity of the area. Although there is limited oil and gas development within AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern, the landscape contains a substantial level of legacy seismic line disturbance that have not undergone proper reclamation efforts, and has resulted in a fragmented forest stands and a reduced quality of habitat for local wildlife species, in particular Woodland caribou. Linear corridors such as seismic lines provide access for predators and humans into areas that was previously inaccessible which ultimately increases the mortality rate of Woodland caribou (Alberta Wildlife Status Report 2001). AWA believes that no further surface disturbances can be tolerated on this landscape due to the slow regeneration rates of a sensitive natural region with cooler climate conditions. AWA also believes that greater efforts need to be focused on rehabilitating industrial disturbance sites as it is essential for the survival of many wildlife species, and the sustainability of this unique northern ecosystem.
Linear corridors such as pipelines, roads, transmission corridors and seismic lines all facilitate increased human motorized access into wilderness areas which has the potential for negative effects on wildlife populations. Effects such as vehicle collisions, wildlife disturbance, habitat avoidance and alienation are all possible impacts of motorized recreation. Motorized recreation can also have negative impacts on the landscape as well. Water sedimentation, soil erosion, soil compaction in addition to vegetation loss are common to heavily used linear corridors. Motorized recreation also has the capacity to cause damage to permafrost areas. Vegetation loss and soil erosion from motorized recreation can cause the exposure of permafrost which can cause premature melting. Despite the presence of designated trails within the park, illegal off-trial travel still occurs in the Caribou Mountains Wildland Provincial Park and on the surrounding landscapes. AWA believes that this form of land use is inappropriate for the Caribou Mountains because of the negative ecological consequences it has which are not compatible with conserving the natural features found within this sensitive and unique landscape.
Although natural wildfires can be an important part of the ecological succession for some vegetative communities, human caused wildfires can severely affect the natural cycle of an ecosystem. Over a period of decades, the Caribou Mountains have been impacted by human caused wildfires that have altered the composition of vegetative communities, exposed large expanses of permafrost and displaced wildlife. It is estimated that over 40% of the Caribou Mountains have been burned as a result of two major fires in the 1970’s; 12 fires in the 1980’s; and 3 main fires from 1991-1996. The average forest requires anywhere between 20 to 30 years to regenerate after a fire which has negative implications for the survivability of animal species such as Woodland caribou that require old growth forest as habitat.
Industrial Scale Logging and Woodland Caribou
The current range for the Caribou Mountain herd is approximately 2,065,873 in size ha, and overlaps with FMU F26, F23, and the unallocated forest tenure in F10. It is estimated that 28% of the Caribou Mountains herd’s range is tenured for forestry, with the majority of harvesting occurring along the southern edge of the caribou range. Timber harvested in this area is used to supply a dimension lumber sawmill in High level, an oriented strand board facility near High Level and a dimension lumber sawmill and pellet mill near the town of La Crete. AWA believes that industrial scale logging within the Caribou Mountains should not occur within the forest tenures overlapping with the herd’s range. With an estimated 35% of habitat remaining undisturbed, AWA believes efforts should be focused on conserving critical habitat for Woodland caribou by maintaining large intact stands of forest within this landscape.
On October 26, the eve of a deadline for a federal update on woodland caribou habitat protection, Alberta is still without plans to reach minimum habitat requirements for its threatened woodland caribou populations. AWA continues to strongly urge the Alberta government to adopt the solutions that have been identified to both recover caribou and provide community economic benefits.
On October 25, AWA and a coalition of ENGOs write to the Minister of Natural Resources of Canada to express their concerns over Forest Products Association of Canada’s (FPAC) September’s report claiming their caribou efforts represent leadership on woodland caribou conservation. The letter emphasizes that FPAC’s initiatives are insufficient to ensure the long-term survival of woodland caribou, and do not address the urgent need for comprehensive caribou habitat range protection outlined in the federal boreal caribou Recovery Strategy. The coalition urges the minister not to allow FPAC’s ongoing messaging tactics to distract from the substantial work still needed to effectively protect caribou habitat. The coalition also asked that the government to continue to work with Indigenous leaders, provinces, territories, scientists, conservation organizations, and companies that recognize the threat of habitat disturbance, to establish protections that satisfy the habitat requirements for self-sustaining caribou populations outlined in the federal Recovery Strategy.
On October 23, a report on how managing lands for woodland caribou recovery can also grow the economy in the Bistcho-Yates caribou range lands of northwest Alberta is released. The report on evaluating a caribou restoration economy was done by eminent natural resource economist Dr. Thomas Michael Power and was commissioned by Alberta Wilderness Association, David Suzuki Foundation and Harmony Foundation.
On May 1, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada releases the first ever section 63 report under the Species at Risk Act, (SARA), where the Minister found that outside of protected areas, provinces and territories have failed to protect almost all of boreal caribou critical habitat. This marks the first time the federal government has released one of these reports updating the public on at-risk species protection as required by law. AWA believes the public has a right to know whether provincial and territorial laws are protecting critical habitat for boreal caribou, and this is an important step toward increasing transparency.
On March 19, Alberta’s Environment Minister requests federal funding and more time to complete range plans in a letter to two Canadian federal ministers. The Minister also states that Alberta is “suspending” consideration of potential Northwest protected areas until socio-economic impacts can be determined. These are the same areas that her appointed consultant, now her Deputy Minister, identified in his May 2016 report as having minimal negative economic impacts.
On March 15, a letter to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Minister from six environmental groups seeks assurance that conservation agreements provided for in section 11 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) will not be misused to mask provincial inaction. The groups – Alberta Wilderness Association, Canadian Wildlife Federation, David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Ontario Nature, and Wilderness Committee – ask the federal government to ensure that the provinces do the necessary work to achieve minimum caribou habitat requirements and protect critical habitat.
On February 27, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada states that:
• she is assessing whether critical habitat of boreal caribou is effectively protected by the laws of Alberta;
• the information provided by Ecojustice, Cold Lake First Nations, Alberta Wilderness Association and David Suzuki Foundation in their November 2017 letter and supporting document will be considered in her assessment;
• should she determine that any portion of critical habitat is unprotected, she will publish a report in April 2018 on steps being taken to protect that critical habitat, and she will recommend that the federal Cabinet (Governor in Council) make an order.
On December 19, Alberta releases a draft caribou provincial range plan that allows unspecified new industrial disturbance in caribou critical habitat, and marks further delays in range-specific plans and actions. While advancing some positive principles, the government continues to delay necessary actions to achieve caribou home ranges of at least 65% undisturbed habitat, the absolute minimum required for caribou to sustain themselves. AWA believes that Alberta’s iconic caribou will go extinct unless the government clearly commits and acts to save caribou habitat. AWA feels strongly that Alberta’s draft provincial range plan does more to increase the risk of caribou extinction for the foreseeable future – by allowing more critical habitat in caribou home ranges to be destroyed – than it does to work towards recovering thriving caribou populations.
On November 28, supporters of Alberta’s endangered caribou delivered hundreds of postcards to the steps of the Alberta Legislature today, asking the Premier to protect the habitat that these iconic wildlife need. The “Quarters for Caribou” event, organized b AWA, comes after Alberta missed its 5-year deadline for producing caribou range plans in October 2017.
On October 31, the federal government reports that the quality of caribou habitat continues to decline across Canada. The David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature and Alberta Wilderness Association have identified critical habitat destruction “hot spots” in the ranges of threatened caribou in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. The groups call on the three provincial governments to convene Indigenous and stakeholder groups to develop range plans that protect critical caribou habitat, as required under Canada’s five-year-old recovery strategy for boreal caribou. No province or territory has fully met the timeline established in the Recovery Strategy for the development of range plans, due on October 5, 2017.
On August 30, AWA writes a letter providing comments to the Northwest Species at Risk Committee on their draft report on caribou recovery. The key themes AWA outlines for northwest Alberta caribou recovery are:
• caribou’s intact habitat needs;
• working together to optimize habitat restoration and protection across caribou ranges;
• importance of protected areas to meet habitat targets;
• three proposed Wildland Provincial Parks will achieve the most protection of caribou range for the least socio-economic cost to northwest communities, because there is no industrial forestry currently in these areas;
• encouraging Mackenzie County and County of Northern Lights to pursue Biosphere Reserve designation
On July 16, AWA responds to the Alberta government’s new survey on caribou range planning, and states that the most critical issue is to protect extensive areas of caribou ranges from industrial development, and restore historic industrial disturbance. Three decades of incremental change and operating guidelines haven’t worked.
On December 22, the Alberta government issues a request to build a fenced compound in the west central Little Smoky woodland caribou range, for captive female caribou to have calves. These calves will be released as yearlings into habitat that is becoming even more degraded by new energy-related disturbances and by logging. AWA believes that the Alberta government must act swiftly on its promises to apply strict operating limits on new surface disturbance in caribou ranges, and to establish extensive northwest Alberta protected areas, instead of relying on artificial predator controls.
On November 23, Alberta’s department of Energy has extended its “use it or lose it” deadlines for drilling requirements for oil sands, oil, gas and mineral operators within every Alberta caribou range until March 2019. AWA welcomes this step to support caribou recovery, and requests that stringent limits on new surface disturbance in caribou ranges also be adopted soon.
On June 8, the Alberta government made a historic decision to protect extensive areas of four endangered woodland caribou ranges in its far north, while it further jeopardizes recovery of two endangered caribou populations in the west central foothills by proposing to restart logging. AWA welcomes the significant achievement for caribou conservation in the north, and urges better solutions that are available for Little Smoky – A La Peche foothills caribou.
On August 4, AWA has found that no new energy rights within Alberta caribou ranges are scheduled for future sales. Two in-range licenses covering 24 km2, which had been posted for the August 19 rights auction, have since been withdrawn by Alberta Energy. AWA recognizes the importance of these lease sale withdrawals and urges the Alberta government to defer all new energy leasing within caribou ranges, until strong habitat-recovery range plans are in place to ensure survival of Alberta’s endangered caribou.
On November 3, ten years after Alberta’s 2004-2014 woodland caribou recovery plan began, habitat disturbance keeps increasing far past limits caribou can tolerate, and populations have significantly declined. Data compiled by AWA reveals that an area 2/3 the size of Nova Scotia (over 33,000 km2) has been auctioned for new oil and gas leases in ranges across Alberta since the plan started, with no meaningful surface disturbance limits. Similarly, oil sands leases cover over 80% of northeast Alberta caribou ranges with no meaningful surface disturbance limits. AWA calls on the Alberta government to adopt rules that steadily reduce industry’s net footprint in its first two caribou range plans expected under the 2012 federal recovery strategy.
In early May, Alberta’s ‘mountain’ caribou are assessed as Endangered – in immediate danger of extinction – by Canada’s Species at Risk Act scientist advisors (COSEWIC). Despite this, the Alberta government plans to sell off a further 1,765 hectares of energy leases in these endangered caribou ranges from May 14 to June 25, in apparent disregard of the habitat crisis facing its caribou. AWA calls on the Alberta government to stop undermining caribou survival chances and to halt new leasing and surface disturbance within caribou ranges.
On March 14, Alberta actions off 5400 km2 of new oil and gas leases/licenses allowing surface disturbance within its threatened woodland caribou ranges since October 2012, the date when the federal caribou recovery strategy mandated provinces to start developing plans to protect caribou habitat. Alberta also announces that by April 30, 2014 it plans to sell a further 30km2 of leases/licenses in five caribou ranges. AWA calls on the Alberta government to stop undermining caribou survival chances and halt new leasing in its caribou ranges.
The draft management plan for caribou ranges remains unproduced.
In April, two illegal kills of caribou are found in Caribou Mountain Wildland Provincial Park. It appears the animals were killed as trophies, as the heads and hides had been removed, but the meat was left to rot.
On February 29, Tourism, Parks and Recreation informs AWA that the Caribou Mountains Draft Management Plan is now undergoing review by Government of Alberta staff. Once their comments have been incorporated, the draft plan will be posted for public review. Following the public review period, an Advisory Committee meeting will be called, possibly in fall 2008, to review the final draft.
On June 7, Community Development informs AWA that the Management Plan is still being revised following the February Public Advisory Committee meeting. The Committee members may receive the revised plan by the end of the summer and public consultation may begin in the fall of 2007.
In February, AWA joins the Caribou Mountains Wildland Park Management Plan Advisory Committee meeting by teleconference and offers numerous suggestions for changes. AWA’s primary concerns, expressed both at the meeting and in a follow-up letter to Community Development, fall into the following categories:
• Meaningful public consultation
• Information gaps and the use of the precautionary principle
• Access: recreational and commercial
• Wildlife baiting
• Stewardship education
• Monitoring and enforcement
On June 27, Alberta Community Development invites AWA to join the Caribou Mountains Wildland Park Management Plan Advisory Committee. AWA agrees and requests funding to attend the meetings in Fort Vermilion but is denied. AWA requests accommodations to join the meetings by teleconferencing.
On June 1, AWA writes to Alberta’s Community Development Minister, thanking him for stating clearly his position that reclassification of the Wildland Park is not an option. AWA comments as follows on the items listed in the Minister’s letter of April 28, 2006 to Caribou Mountains Wildland Park Management Plan Advisory Committee (PAC):
Trapping: AWA does not object to the continuance of commercial trapping in the park where pre-existing commitments are honoured, but emphasizes that a management plan must clearly outline phasing out of these activities without detrimental effect on those who have been making their living in the park.
Bison Hunting: AWA appreciates that a deferral is appropriate, but emphasizes the importance of obtaining provincial ENGO input in this process.
Co-Management: AWA supports the minister’s decision not to consider the PAC co-managing the park.
Classification of Caribou Mountains Wildland Park: AWA supports the minister’s decision not to consider changing the park’s wildland park designation.
Guide-Outfitters: AWA advocates a phasing-out of traditional operations and ensure that any expansion to existing operators’ plans is curtailed.
Baiting: AWA is opposed to the practice of baiting and states that this practice should not be allowed and should be banned.
Recreational OHV and Snowmobile Access: AWA requests no further extension of concessions to recreational OHV users, and emphasizes that it believes there should be no OHV access within the park. AWA expresses concern that if even a single OHV trail is authorized, illegal use off trail would almost be guaranteed, based on the experience elsewhere including in Bighorn Wildland. The area is very remote and enforcement would be next to impossible.
Aircraft Access: AWA may not be opposed to aircraft access as proposed by the minister, but is concerned with what mechanisms are in place to control and enforce activities, and how to limit growth and size of operations and flights.
AWA stresses that ecosystem-based planning fundamentals need to be in place in the management plan and provincial-scale perspectives are retained in the process, including the need for ENGO representation.
May 10, the Community Development Minister responds with the following points to AWA’s letter of April 7, 2006:
• “Regarding your concern about the Wildland Park designation of the Caribou Mountains, I can assure you that the Alberta government has no intention of changing the status of this Wildland.”
• The minister reiterates that the input from the local committee is one of just many forms for input that will be solicited for the management plan, and although provincial ENGO’s are not represented on the committee, the will have ample opportunity to provide input into the management plan.
• “It is recognized that Caribou Mountains Wildland Provincial Park is of interest to all Albertans. Therefore, the draft management plan will be given broad circulation to the general public and to various other provincial stakeholder organizations for comment.”
April 28, AWA obtains a copy of a letter dated April 28, 2006 from Alberta Community Development Minister addressed to the M.D. of Mackenzie No.23, and the Caribou Mountains Wildland Management Plan Advisory Committee responding to the letter of March 29, 2006. The letter addresses the key points as follows:
Trapping: The government is committed to honouring existing commercial trapping in parks and protected areas established under the Special Places program. Trappers should still work with his department to ensure they have the necessary approvals and permits. The minister is willing to consider waiving the annual fee for dispositions.
Bison Hunting: Management of bison in northern Alberta is being developed in an inter-governmental forum. Bison hunting within the Wildland will be deferred until these discussions have concluded. There are good opportunities for bison hunting in more accessible areas outside the Wildland.
Co-Management: Alberta Community Development has full responsibility for the administration and management of legislated provincial protected areas on behalf of all Albertans and is not able to consider the Advisory Committee co-managing the Wildland.
Classification of Caribou Mountains: The Wildland Park status was designated under a Cabinet decision based on recommendations by the Special Places Provincial Coordinating Committee and the park status has wide public support. The Wildland classification was created in part to manage large, undeveloped protected areas and to accommodate activities such as hunting and trapping in these areas, and the Wildland designation is appropriate for this area. Also, separate legislation for the area is contrary to the government’s objectives to limit the duplication and complexity of Alberta’s protected areas legislation.
Guide-Outfitters: The minister is willing to consider, on an exception basis, enabling the few existing commercial guide-outfitters working in the Wildland to continue traditional operations associated with hunting big game animals subject to obtaining the necessary permits and authorizations. This accommodation, however, does not extend to any subsequent commercial guide-outfitters.
Baiting: Baiting of wildlife is generally illegal in Alberta’s parks and protected areas, but the minister is willing to consider, on an exception basis, permitting those few existing commercial guide-outfitters who have bear allocations for this area to bait bears and wolves within the Wildland until such time the issue of baiting is resolved province-wide.
Recreational OHV and Snowmobile Access: The minister will consider, on a case-by-case basis, the approval of a designated access route for off-highway vehicles (OHVs) and snowmobiles to one or more lakes in the winter, under frozen ground conditions, for the purpose of ice fishing. While the minister is willing to enable trappers and those few existing commercial guide-outfitters to use their OHVs at other times of the year to facilitate their traditional trapping and hunting operations, he is not willing to extend this concession to recreational OHV users on a general basis. The permafrost environment of the Caribou Mountains plateau is very sensitive to this type of disturbance and cannot be reclaimed or re-established once it is lost.
Aircraft Access: The minister will consider the opportunity for pilots to obtain permits to land fixed-wing aircraft on designated lakes for approved trapping, recreational and commercial hunting, fishing, or other authorized recreational, commercial or research-related activities. The authorizations would only be issued to the aircraft operator, not the individual being serviced by the aircraft.
On April 26, AWA receives a letter from the newly appointed Minister of Alberta Community Development, in response to AWA’s letter of March 21, 2006. The Minister responds with the following points:
• The intent for committee membership was to involve local people who were familiar with the Caribou Mountains.
• He agreed with AWA that provincial conservation organizations are not represented, but both local environmental interests and First Nations interests are well-represented on the committee.
• The Minister states the majority of meetings are open to the public, but a small, focused workshop occurred on March 11, 2006. Prior to the workshop, committee members were canvassed as to whether AWA and a local off-highway group should be invited to the workshop or sit on the committee. The Minister was advised that a decision was made to proceed with only advisory committee members, as per the original terms of reference, but the intent is to revisit representation as outlined in the terms of reference at the next open advisory committee meeting.
• The Caribou Mountains Wildland Management Plan Advisory Committee is only one step in the process towards completion of a management plan, and as the Wildland Park is of interest to all Albertans, the draft plan will be given broad circulation to provincial organizations and to the general public for comment.
In April, the Community Development Minister responds to the Caribou Mountains Wildland Management Plan Advisory Committee’s requests (March 29) with the following points and concessions:
• Existing commercial trapping in Caribou Mountains Wildland will be honoured. Community Development will consider waiving the annual fee associated with leases issued for trappers’ cabins.
• Further decisions on bison hunting within the Wildland will be deferred until high level inter-governmental discussions have been concluded.
• Community Development has full responsibility for managing all legislated provincial protected areas on behalf of all Albertans and is therefore unable to consider the Advisory Committee co-managing the Wildland.
• Reclassification of the Wildland is not an option since the classification was a Cabinet decision based on recommendations by the Special Places Provincial Coordinating Committee with wide public support.
• Community Development is willing to consider, on an exception basis, enabling existing commercial guide-outfitters to continue their hunting of big game animals. However, this exception to current legislation and policy will not extend to a new operator, should the allocations be reassigned.
• Although baiting of wildlife is illegal in Alberta’s parks and protected areas, Community Development will consider permitting existing commercial guide-outfitters who have bear allocations in the area to bait for bears and wolves in the Wildland. However, this exception will not extend to a new operator, should the allocations be reassigned.
• In the final Management Plan, Community Development will consider, on an exception basis, the approval of a designated access route for OHVs and snowmobiles to one or more lakes in the winter for the purpose of ice-fishing. Trappers and current commercial outfitters will be permitted to use their OHVs at other times of the year as well. This concession will not be extended to recreational OHV users.
• Community Development will consider granting permits to land fixed-wing aircraft on designated lakes in the Wildland to support approved recreational, commercial, or research activities. The permits will be issued to aircraft operators, not to those being serviced by the operators.
A Public Advisory Committee (PAC) member is quoted by CBC as saying that the committee would like a management plan that allows for more activities in the park, especially ATV access in both summer and winter. The member reports that the PAC wants the level of protection of the area downgraded. AWA spokeperson says increased ATV use would hurt the declining woodland caribou herd in the area. The Park was given its current status under the Special Places legislation and changing or revoking it would be going against what the public asked for.
On April 10, in the legislature, a Liberal MLA asks the Minister of Alberta Community Development to assure the House that he will not allow the Caribou Mountains Wildland Park to lose its protected status as a Wildland Park. The Liberal MLA also calls for the Minister to table all recommendations made by all parks advisory and planning committees.
AWA President comments on these actions saying that, “In this way, Albertans will have a transparent view of what is being recommended for their Special Places and be able to guard against special interests damaging their heritage.”
In two press releases, AWA expresses concern about the Caribou Mountains Wildland Park Planning Advisory Committee (CMWPPAC). The committee was commissioned to make management recommendations but has turned that privilege into a lobby effort to allow motorized access and to have the Wildland Park status revoked. “The committee’s letter… was signed on behalf of all members even though at least four members, including Parks Canada, do not support revoking Wildland Park status.”
On April 7, in a letter to Community Development Minister AWA requests that the Minister:
• rebuke the Caribou Mountains Wildland Park Management Plan Advisory Committee and its request to revoke the Wildland Park status, and
• allow representation on the committee from provincial ENGOs.
On March 31, in an email from a member of the Advisory Committee to Committee Chair, it is noted that Committee member does not agree with the decision made at the Committee’s March meeting to ask the Minister to reconsider designation of the Wildland.
On March 29, in a letter to Community Development Minister Gary Mar, a member of the Caribou Mountains Wildland Management Plan Advisory Committee says that the Committee was unaware that the Caribou Mountain Wildlands had been designated as a Wildland Park (on July 24, 2001), a designation that PAC calls a “unilateral decision” (see October 2002). The member goes on: “The current designation as a Park under the Provincial Parks Act does not have the support of the Committee, and was never recommended, discussed, or agreed upon by this Committee or to the best of our knowledge by its predecessor, the Special Places Committee which was made up of the same members.… The Committee requests that the Minister revoke the Wildland Park designation, and that specific legislation to manage the area be passed.” The letter is signed on behalf of all Committee members, despite a lack of consensus within the Committee on revoking Park status.
Advisory Committee member makes a presentation on behalf of the MD of Mackenzie and the Caribou Mountains Management Plan Advisory Committee to the Minister the following reflects the position of the municipality and the Committee:
• There is a need for protection of the area over and beyond the levels for the Green Zone in Alberta.
• Present and potential new legislation governing Wildland Parks is irrelevant and detrimental to the Caribou Mountains region: “some of the more specific needs of this fragile environment may be missed.”
• The committee questions the designation of this area as a Wildland Park and proposes that a management plan be developed to form a base for unique legislation to govern and enforce this area, as was done for Willmore Wilderness Park.
• The Committee requests co-management status (rather than advisory status) so that their decisions are more respected and enforceable.
• Access for recreation or other needs by ATV or airplane need not be regulated except for specific environmental concerns: “The remoteness of this park regulates itself at this time.”
• Bison management and hunting should be treated the same as in the adjacent Green Zone.
• Commercial activities should be examined on an individual basis.
AWA learns of the content of a recent meeting held in Ft. Vermillion by the Caribou Mountains Wildland Park Planning Advisory Committee. AWA is concerned that there is no representation on the committee by provincial conservation organizations. AWA becomes aware that some members of the committee intend to lobby intensely, on behalf of local interests, to demand major changes to the Wildland Provincial Park including increased OHV access, potentially more recreational and industrial development in the park, and even the possibility of revoking the Wildland Park status.
On March 21, AWA writes to the Minister of Alberta Community Development, expressing concerns over the lack of provincial representation, questioning the committee’s mandate, identifying the importance of involving the First Nations Community, calling for public hearings on any new developments, and identifying the need for stronger protection in this and other protected areas.
On March 11, at an Advisory Committee workshop, the Committee agrees to challenge the definition of Wildland Park of the Caribou Mountain region. They identify the main issue and concern regarding Wildland Park designation as access.
On May 11, at a meeting of guide-outfitters in the Caribou Mountains area, the following points are made by various provincial government representatives:
• The management plan must be developed within the parameters of existing legislation and policy.
• The designation of the park prohibits new industrial activity such as forest harvesting or oil and gas exploration and development.
• There is value in having protected areas where access is either limited or difficult.
• Because it is illegal to hunt bison in the Park, the provincial government cannot issue a permit for bison hunting.
• Under the Parks Act you cannot feed wildlife. You can still hunt for bears in the Park but baiting bears must be done on lands outside the Park.
• Guide/outfitter allocations are annual commitments and do not grant any long-term exclusive rights to a particular land base or resource. Sustainable Resource Development does not view guiding/outfitting as a long-term commitment and retains complete discretion with respect to allocations.
• Trappers’ cabins are to be used for trapping business only, not for other commercial purposes.
On October 3, In a letter to the Energy Minister, an AWA conservation specialist reiterates AWA’s opposition to the pending sale of license #B0806 (20030416), requesting that this license not be sold as it falls within AWA’s Caribou Mountains area of concern.
In July, a team of scientists begin a study on invertebrates, birds, plants, lichens, fisheries, mosses, soils, etc. in the Wentzel Lake area of the Caribou Mountains.
On April 24, the following recommendations are presented at a meeting of the Caribou Mountains Management Plan Committee on behalf of the Alberta Environment Network (Federation of Alberta Naturalists, CPAWS Edmonton Chapter, AWA, and Albertans for a Wild Chinchaga):
• Expansion of the current boundaries of the Park to include all woodland caribou and bison range.
• Cessation of logging in the Caribou Management Zones adjacent to the Wildland Park.
• No increased commercial use of the area unless it clearly does not contribute to degradation of the environment.
• No new access routes.
• Ecologically sustainable rates of use on existing trails where motorized use is permitted.
• Careful monitoring of fisheries resources to ensure their maintenance or restoration, if necessary.
• Sufficient resources to monitor and control negative environmental impacts.
• Ongoing monitoring of wildlife populations to ensure sustainability.
• No hunting of woodland caribou or bison until comprehensive research has been done.
• Engagement of local indigenous peoples by the government in discussions regarding some form of co-management of the Park.
On March 14, in a letter to the Energy Minister, an AWA conservation specialist expresses opposition to the pending sale of license #B0806 (20030416), requesting that this license not be sold as it falls within AWA’s Caribou Mountains Area of Concern.
On October 30, the first meeting of the Caribou Mountains Wildland Management Plan Advisory Committee is held, the following issues are discussed:
Background information on the area is given. Before the area was designated as a Wildland Park, the Caribou Mountains Special Places Local Committee gave the following key recommendations:
• Continued economic benefit from guiding, trapping and recreation
• Preservation, recreation, tourism and heritage appreciation
• A protected area in the Caribou Mountains
Due to concerns that the Local Committee’s recommended site was too large, 5 townships in the northwest corner of the site were not included in the final designation as a Wildland Park because of the industrial and metallic minerals exploration interest in the area (Ashton Mineral Leases). Ashton completed some exploration testing in the Caribou Mountains, and subsequently their permits were not renewed in the Wildland nor in the five townships on the northern boundary.
“The Caribou Mountains Local Committee recommended the area be protected … but didn’t make a recommendation on what class of protected area it should be designated as. After the report was received, Government looked at all the recommendations and chose a designation that was a best fit – in this case a Wildland Park” (Doug Bowes, Alberta Community Development, Parks and Protected Areas).
It is agreed that most decisions will be reached through consensus. Dissenting views will be recorded and passed on to the Minister. If consensus cannot be reached on an issue, it will be recorded as such.
There are no petroleum and natural gas dispositions with surface access or metallic and industrial mineral permits in the Wildland. The Planning Advisor for Parks and Protected Areas, states that any future sales of PNG would not have surface access – companies would have to drill from outside the Park.
On July 24, Caribou Mountains Wildland Park is established by Order-in-Council 308/2001.
On October 7, the Caribou Mountains Special Places Local Committee gives their report to the Minister of Environment. The report contains a Permitted Activities Schedule that includes the following:
• Trappers to retain all their existing rights, including access by ATVs, airplanes, and snowmobiles; cabins every 20 miles; right to maintain all existing lines and obtain new allocations
• Guides and outfitters to retain all existing rights, including motorized year-round access (ATVs and airplanes), right to obtain new allocations
• Hunting to be managed by Fish and Wildlife; motorized access to be permitted (but “regulate subsistence hunting by aboriginal people in the interest of public safety and conservation”)
• Retain open access to fisheries for all anglers
In July, the Alberta Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy Development Committee delivers a report to the Provincial Director of Wildlife Management. This is the third strategy for woodland caribou conservation that has been written and shelved. The report recommends a decision-making process, identifies information needs and management tools, and proposes specific implementation milestones. The goal is to develop a strategy that will result in “healthy caribou populations in perpetuity throughout Alberta’s caribou range.” Although the proposed strategy is not approved by Alberta Environment, staff and a number of stakeholders have used the strategy for guidance in the planning and implementation of resource management activities on woodland caribou range. The lack of endorsement of senior government officials is viewed by some as a lack of commitment to caribou conservation efforts.
In February, Environment Network News reports that Home Oil has voluntarily agreed to curtail development in the Caribou Mountains for one year. This emerged from an analysis conducted by a member of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in which he worked with lichenologist and botanist Dr. Bernard DeVries.
On April 24, Caribou Mountains Resource Management Plan (Draft) is released by Alberta Environmental Protection. The draft highlights are the following:
“The intent of the Caribou Mountains Resource Management Plan is to protect permafrost, slow-growing fish, as well as caribou and caribou habitat. The plan also recognizes other natural values such as landforms, vegetation, other wildlife and climatic features. Activities in the area must meet this intent.”
The Plan is to be updated every five years with a full public review. While any change to the intent of the plan requires public review, minor changes can be requested and are handled by the Peace River Regional Resource Management Committee.
In March, the ERCB responds to AWA’s letter requesting that Home Oil’s well licenses be rescinded: “The Board has decided not to initiate a review of the subject well licenses at this time. Home has therefore been advised it may proceed with the remainder of its drilling program for this winter season.”
In February, through letters to the ERCB, AWA and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee request that the ERCB rescind the approved well licenses for Home Oil in the Caribou Mountains until a full public hearing is conducted and a comprehensive environmental assessment has been done.
“The Strategy for Conservation of Woodland Caribou in Alberta” is drafted by the provincial wildlife management agency. Few recommendations from this report are adopted, and the plan receives considerable criticism from government agencies, public groups, and industry.
In November, a multi-stakeholder committee known as the Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy Development Committee (WCCSDC) is formed to scope issues and develop yet another provincial woodland caribou conservation strategy.
Environmental Protection staff meet to discuss the future management of the Caribou Mountains.
A drilling operation by Home Oil in the Caribou Mountains raises concern about damage to permafrost and protection of woodland caribou populations.
The “Woodland Caribou Provincial Restoration Plan” (Edmonds) is proposed.
The second of two ecological surveys of the area (the first in 1976) is completed (Natural Areas of Energy and Natural Resources with the Alberta Ecological Survey).
AWA raises concerns surrounding the need to produce a plan for caribou conservation within the region.