June 23, 2022
Alberta’s majestic woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are perfectly adapted to intact older foothills and boreal forests, but are headed for extinction without better habitat protection.
AWA Vision – Alberta’s woodland caribou will survive and recover to naturally self-sustaining wild populations.
Achieving survival and recovery means:
• Developing legally enforced land-use plans to manage caribou ranges;
• Achieving and maintaining the ‘undisturbed’ habitat threshold that naturally self-sustaining wild caribou require;
• Sequencing, clustering and managing access, industrial infrastructure and other human activities;
• Optimizing disturbances so caribou can recover and communities can thrive;
• Establishing areas within caribou ranges where caribou conservation is the highest land management priority;
• Supporting caribou habitat restoration activities, which will also provide quality employment;
• Engaging Indigenous communities in caribou land-use management, and;
• With time and best management, harvesting caribou from naturally self-sustaining populations is possible.
AWA believes society reaps multiple benefits from the older, intact forests and wetlands that wild caribou require. Intact forested and wetland areas in caribou ranges store significant carbon, regulate climate, and retain and purify water.
Forestry, energy, settlement, and other human impacts have fragmented or removed intact older forests and peat wetlands in Alberta caribou ranges, leading to some of the most highly disturbed ranges in Canada. This disturbance stimulates moose, deer, and wolves, resulting in predation rates higher than caribou can tolerate. The conservation community, including provincial biologists, have recognized the need to protect caribou since the 1940s. Alberta has spent over 40 years researching and monitoring caribou declines, and has held multiple collaborative planning processes. Alberta has yet to produce caribou range plans and actions that adequately protect caribou habitat.
Historically, woodland caribou populations across Canada’s boreal forest were connected, as were mountain woodland caribou populations ranging between Alberta and British Columbia. Today, for management purposes, they are divided into populations associated with different remaining home ranges. In Alberta, there are 5 mountain and 12 boreal woodland caribou ranges – out of 17 ranges, 15 are found on provincial lands, and 2 ranges exist in the federally-managed National Parks of Jasper and Banff. Although range boundaries are often depicted as ending at provincial borders, retaining connectivity between ranges in Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories is important for caribou conservation.
Under Alberta’s Wildlife Act, the woodland caribou is designated as ‘Threatened’. They were first listed under this law in 1985, due to their low numbers and the decline in their distribution resulting from direct habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation.
In September of 2010, the Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC) recommended that the status of the woodland caribou be changed to ‘endangered’ because of persistently-shrinking populations due to a “decline in habitat quality with unsustainably high rates of mortality through predation” – essentially the same, persistent concern presented in 1985.
The research done by Hervieux et al. (2013) states that the future of caribou in Alberta is very uncertain with population trends showing significant declines – an approximate decline of 50% every 8 years.
Based on recent monitoring data of the 15 caribou populations on provincial public lands:
(Draft Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan, Government of Alberta, 2017)
Since 2003, Canada’s Species at Risk Act has listed both ‘southern mountain’ caribou – the populations of mountain caribou found in Alberta – and boreal woodland caribou as ‘threatened’ species. In 2014, the federal scientific advisory group, Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), recommended that the Canadian boreal population as a whole could maintain its ‘threatened’ status, while the status of the southern mountain woodland caribou should be changed to ‘endangered’. The federal government has not updated the SARA listing of southern mountain caribou to reflect this scientific assessment.
Federal Imminent Threat Assessment for Southern Mountain Caribou
In May 2018, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change released a statement that “Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population is facing imminent threats to its recovery.” This threat assessment includes seven B.C. herds and the Alberta herds of Narraway, Jasper-Banff, and Redrock / Prairie Creek – both Narraway and Jasper-Banff populations have less than 50 individuals, and the Redrock / Prairie Creek has between 100 and 300 individuals.
In June 2018 the full report was released, detailing the main ongoing factors contributing to the imminent threat to the recovery of southern mountain woodland caribou, from most to least significant, including:
The basic ‘habitat loss’ problem also applies to caribou in Rocky Mountain national parks. Unlike the more northerly boreal woodland caribou of Alberta, the caribou found in Jasper and (previously) Banff are mountain caribou that need to migrate safely from their summer ranges in the mountains to their winter ranges in the foothills.
During the 20th century, their foothills winter grounds outside the parks were blocked and fragmented by roads, mines, cut-blocks and other human impacts. Inside the parks, artificially high elk populations were encouraged when predators were removed, and roads and trails were built into some key caribou areas. This greatly increased caribou predation by wolves, beyond levels they could tolerate. Since the late 1970s we have known that these caribou travel between Alberta and B.C., yet there has been little inter-provincial cooperation. Parks Canada’s recent actions to support caribou on greatly reduced and fragmented ranges seem to be ‘too little, too late’ and now these important, genetically distinctive mountain caribou are near extirpation.
In Jasper National Park: Brazeau is “declining and functionally extirpated”, Maligne is “declining and possibly extirpated” and Tonquin is “declining and at extirpation threshold” (Parks Canada official, reported in Jasper Fitzhugh, April 9, 2019).
In Banff National Park: Extirpated. The population was allowed to decrease until the few remaining caribou were killed in a March 2009 avalanche.
The ultimate goal of both the Alberta and Canadian governments is to achieve self-sustaining caribou populations in all ranges throughout their current distribution, to the extent possible. According to the federal recovery strategies for boreal and southern mountain woodland caribou, recovery of all these caribou local populations is “technically and biologically feasible.”
Woodland caribou management in Alberta is directed provincially by the Wildlife Act, and more specifically by a series of management plans. Federally, recovery strategies and other documents developed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) govern woodland caribou management in Canada.
Alberta populations of woodland caribou have been in decline since the 1920’s. Provincial biologists and the conservation community have urged adequate protection since that time. Despite over 40 years of researching and monitoring these caribou declines, and holding multiple collaborative planning processes, Alberta has yet to produce caribou range plans and actions that adequately protect caribou habitat.
Federal Caribou Recovery Strategies
Under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), recovery strategies must be prepared for ‘threatened’ species within four years after listing. Recovery strategies are very important because they identify ‘critical habitat’, habitat goals, threats to the survival of the species and threats to its habitat. Under SARA, if the federal Environment Minister is of the opinion that identified critical habitat is not being protected on either federal or provincial lands, then the Environment Minister must, after consultation, recommend to Cabinet that the federal government issue an order to protect the critical habitat from destruction.
Both boreal and southern mountain woodland caribou species were listed as ‘threatened’ in 2003. In 2012 Environment Canada finalized the national boreal woodland caribou recovery strategy, five years past mandatory SARA deadlines. In 2014 the national southern mountain woodland caribou recovery strategy was released, seven years past mandatory SARA deadlines.
Critical habitat for boreal caribou has been identified as two parts:
Critical habitat for southern mountain caribou is identified in four parts:
The 2012 recovery strategy for boreal woodland caribou gave provinces and territories another five years to develop range management plans. These range plans need to outline how they would manage ranges to achieve and maintain, in the next 50-100 years, at least minimum caribou critical habitat requirements.
Alberta Habitat Management since the Federal Recovery Strategies
Alberta continues to rely mostly on land-use guidelines at an individual industrial project level to try to lessen caribou habitat impacts, instead of managing cumulative landscape impacts to caribou habitat. This approach has been ineffective in meeting Alberta’s stated goals to achieve self-sustaining woodland caribou herds and maintain the distribution of caribou in Alberta.
In response to the federal recovery strategies, Alberta has been developing range plans since 2013. Not a single one has been completed. Meanwhile, disturbance from industrial and other human impacts has continued to expand in most caribou ranges. Some positive habitat-related policy decisions made by the provincial government since 2012 include:
Federal progress reports since 2018 show that Alberta has not effectively protected critical habitat for woodland caribou on provincial lands. This means that SARA could be used to apply a habitat protection order, providing mandatory protection to woodland caribou critical habitat.
Alberta Habitat Management before the Federal Recovery Strategies
Committees of key industrial representatives and other stakeholders have been involved in discussing caribou and developing provincial guidelines since 1991.
The Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan 2004/05 – 2013/14 stated two recovery goals: to achieve self-sustaining woodland caribou herds and maintain the distribution of caribou in Alberta; and to ensure long-term caribou habitat requirements are met. The 2011 Woodland Caribou Policy for Alberta committed the Alberta government to achieving naturally sustaining woodland caribou populations.
In practice, cumulative industrial land-use decisions have led to ongoing fragmentation and loss of caribou habitat, and to population declines.
Earlier management plans included the following recommendations:
Woodland Caribou Management Plans and Recovery Strategies in Alberta
Alberta Management of Wolves, Deer and Moose in Caribou Ranges
Woodland caribou have co-existed with natural predators including wolves and bears for millennia. Caribou live in intact old growth forests and peat wetland areas, which other prey species such as deer and moose avoid. ‘Business as usual’ industrial development stimulates deer, moose and wolf populations in caribou ranges, and creates easy access to caribou, robbing caribou of their natural ability to avoid overlap with predators.
In winter 2005/06, an intensive annual wolf cull sponsored by the provincial government began in two west central Alberta ranges, Little Smoky and A La Peche. These ranges have high levels of energy and forestry industry disturbance. In subsequent years very high numbers of moose hunting permits were issued to control the resulting high numbers of moose. The wolf culls rely mostly on aerial shooting, although strychnine poisoning was used as part of the wolf culls in some years. In 2014, a peer-reviewed article by caribou scientists in government and academia concluded that the wolf cull appeared to stabilize, but not recover, these caribou populations. They suggested long-term habitat conservation, restoration and management was needed.
In 2014/15 the wolf cull was extended to the Redrock-Prairie Creek population and in 2016/17 to the Cold Lake population.
AWA does not support the use of poisons to manage wildlife populations. Furthermore, AWA believes the dire measure of predator culls can only be justified as a temporary, last resort measure combined with strong caribou habitat protection and habitat restoration.
Caribou are members of the deer family (Cervidae). Four subspecies of caribou are found in Canada – Woodland, Barren-ground, Peary, and Grant’s – each with distinct behaviour, form, and distribution.
In Alberta, there are only Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou). But two forms, or ecotypes, exist – the boreal woodland caribou and the mountain woodland caribou. Although they are the same species, each form has unique behavioural patterns when using the landscape.
Boreal woodland caribou in west-central, central, and northern Alberta move around their dynamic boreal forest ranges depending on fire and other disturbance. They primarily choose wetlands and older conifer or mixed conifer forests. Bistcho, Yates and Caribou Mountains populations in far northwest Alberta choose forests at least 80 years old, other boreal populations choose forests at least 60 years old.
Mountain woodland caribou in west-central Alberta are distinguished by their seasonal migratory behaviour – in winter, they have been known to migrate up to 100 km to foothills conifer forests 80 years or older, and return in summer to higher elevation sub-alpine forests.
Woodland caribou are typically 1.0 to 1.2 m tall at the shoulder and weigh between 110 and 210 kg when fully mature. They have a velvet-like coat that is dark brown with creamy-white patches around the neck and shoulders, rump and underbelly. Woodland caribou even have short white ‘socks’ above their cloven hooves – two large ‘toes’ at the front with two smaller ‘toes’ (or dew-claws) at the back. These special hooves spread wide when walking, allowing the caribou to travel easily on soft ground like snow and peaty-bogs. In the winter, caribou also use their hooves to dig through the snow to find lichens and other plants to eat. In fact, lichen is such an important food source for a woodland caribou that it makes up 70% of their diet. A mosaic of these lichens can be found in old-growth conifer-dominant forests – that is, mature stands of mainly spruce and pine 80 to 150 years old.
Unlike other members of the deer family, both male and female caribou can grow antlers. The presence of the female’s antlers can vary, from two, to one, to none. Increased competition for winter food resources has been suggested as the determining factor for development of female antlers in a population. Both male and female antlers are only kept seasonally – the male caribou looses his antlers after (or potentially during) the fall rut that occurs from late September to the end of October, and the female loses hers later in spring after giving birth to a calf. However, the male’s antlers are typically larger with one flattened paddle-like tine at the front.
Woodland caribou are slow to mature and have relatively low reproductive rates – females are able to breed after 2.5 years and only have one calf per year. If conditions are ideal, caribou can live 10 to 15 years on average, meaning that each female can be expected to have 7 to 12 calves in their lifetime.
Woodland caribou are also very difficult to count – partly due to their tendency to spread sparsely across the landscape, as well as their preference of living in forested areas. For that reason population trends from a collared subset of a population, rather than absolute numbers, are annually monitored. Based on limited observations from aerial surveys, the Alberta government provided a rough estimate of at least 2000 caribou in Alberta (Draft Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan, 2017).
Woodland Caribou are a species found only in North America with historical ranges from the western Rocky Mountains in British Columbia to the eastern seaboard in Newfoundland, and from the northern tips of Washington, Idaho, and Montana in the United States upward into Alaska and the northern territories of Canada. However, the current distribution of woodland caribou has shrunk dramatically over the past century, compared to their historical extent.
The two different ecotypes of woodland caribou in Alberta are boreal and mountain, and vary in distribution based on their habitat needs. The boreal variety of woodland caribou exist across Canada in the North West Territories, B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and in Newfoundland and Labrador (see green areas in map below). The mountain variety exist only in the western provinces and territories, with the Alberta sub-populations being part of the southern mountain woodland caribou population (see area with orange lines and black plus signs (+) in map below).
Both mountain and boreal woodland caribou display solitary behaviour for most of their lives, however they tend to spend time in small groups when calving, rutting, or over-wintering.
Alberta mountain caribou historically migrated between summer and winter ranges. In the summer, they live in alpine areas. In the winter, they typically descended into valleys and foothills to shelter in old-growth conifer forests. In recent decades, some or all of the populations have abandoned their winter ranges. This shift may be because of high human-caused disturbance in the foothills, and the associated high caribou mortality within those winter ranges and during migration.
Boreal woodland caribou move extensively throughout the year but their winter and summer ranges overlap. They choose areas of forested peat bogs and fens in combination with older coniferous forests.
Because woodland caribou require abundant access to lichens, they prefer to live in old-growth coniferous forests and peat wetland complexes. But these areas have been increasingly impacted by industry – the key contributor to exclusion of caribou from quality habitat. Caribou tend to avoid landscape disturbances – like un-reclaimed seismic lines and logged areas – for up to several kilometers, yet they require large areas of suitable continuous habitat where individuals are able to spread out and reach their preferred population density of approximately two to three caribou per 100 km2. Landscape disturbances also stimulate other prey species such as white-tailed deer and moose, and in turn support higher wolf populations that can more easily travel to where caribou are found. With human-caused disturbances increasingly fracturing landscapes, this leaves little room for caribou to thrive.
Caribou have been an integral part of Indigenous culture in Canada for thousands of years, as a game animal, providing sustenance and resources for clothing and tools, and as a spiritual symbol, surrounded by many important cultural teachings and beliefs.
Many of the traditional and treaty territories of Alberta Indigenous peoples overlap with caribou ranges. In Alberta, there are 45 distinct First Nation groups living on 140 reserves covered by Treaty 6, Treaty 7, and Treaty 8. Both First Nations and Metis have constitutionally protected land and resource rights. Indigenous communities are rights holders and have important knowledge when considering matters regarding caribou conservation.
Most Alberta Indigenous communities have stopped hunting caribou as a way to help reduce impacts on the populations.
Alberta Wilderness Association is calling for:
The most consistent and pervasive threat to the persistence of a viable caribou population in Alberta stems from resource extraction industries, which are causing an overall loss and fragmentation of habitat. Reports from locals and government biologists dating back 60 years have documented the absence of caribou following the establishment of industrial activity in an area. Over the past 30 years, field biologists have shown the links among forestry, hydrocarbon development, and road building and the decline of woodland caribou.
Caribou are vulnerable to habitat loss for several reasons:
In March, the Cold Lake and Bistcho Lake task force recommendations are published. At the same time, the provincial government released draft Cold Lake and Bistcho Lake sub-regional plans for public comment. AWA encouraged as much citizen participation as possible during the consultation period. These are precedent-setting, overdue plans for managing cumulative industrial land-use impacts over significant areas of Alberta public lands.
In October, Canadian and Albertan governments complete a joint woodland caribou conservation agreement. Alberta has committed to meet evidence-based habitat goals and will provide public annual reports of its caribou populations and habitat conditions. Alberta has also committed to a detailed five-year schedule to finish enforceable sub-regional caribou range plans, to achieve minimum habitat requirements in the coming decades. AWA remains very concerned that the absence of federal interim habitat protection measures makes it likely that critical habitat disturbance and caribou extirpation risk will continue to increase.
On December 16th, one day before the scheduled court date, an EcoJustice news release announces that the legal case of its clients AWA, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, and David Suzuki Foundation, concerning protection for boreal caribou habitat in northeastern Alberta, is adjourned pending further discussions with the federal government.
In November, initial meetings are held for the multi-stakeholder Bistcho Lake, Cold Lake, and Upper Smoky caribou sub-regional task forces. The Alberta government states that the task forces will provide recommendations for sub-regional plans and for caribou ranges in the sub-regions that “will support both a working landscape and caribou recovery.” AWA is represented on each task force. Target dates for the task forces to complete their recommendations are: Cold Lake area by March 2020; Bistcho Lake area by April 2020; and Upper Smoky by September 2020.
In August, Governments of Canada and Alberta release a draft Agreement for the Conservation and Recovery of the Woodland Caribou, which is a conservation agreement under section 11 of the federal Species at Risk Act. It outlines a proposed 5-year strategy to assist both mountain and boreal woodland caribou populations to become self-sustaining over the long-term. Some highlights in the proposed agreement include: range plans being established under provincial law, making them enforceable; acknowledgment of the importance of Indigenous collaboration; the phase-out of mountain pine beetle ‘surge clearcuts’ and the development of forest management plans that set harvest levels to support caribou recovery; developing energy access plans that maintain and restore habitat; and applying conditions in forestry and energy approvals to reduce cumulative effects. However, it lacks any specific timelines to achieve minimum habitat requirements, lacks funding commitments, and does not mention any interim habitat protection measures.
Cold Lake First Nations (CLFN) and the Government of Canada release a separate draft Agreement for the Conservation of the Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population that reside on CLFN traditional territory, which is also conservation agreement under section 11 of the federal Species at Risk Act. This Agreement is intended to support the Cold Lake caribou population to recover to self-sustaining levels – enough to support traditional Indigenous harvesting rights. AWA praises this agreement as a step to enhance Cold Lake First Nations’ capacity and leadership to recover caribou, and cautions that progress will ultimately depend on the Alberta government’s willingness to advance the habitat and stewardship goals.
The Alberta government also announces the creation of three new sub-regional caribou task forces that will focus on specific sub-regional planning areas – Cold Lake, Bistcho Lake, and Upper Smoky. These task forces promise to include 12 to 16 stakeholder representatives from indigenous communities, forestry, energy, recreational users, local municipalities, trappers, and environmental groups, including AWA. The goal of these task forces is to “advise government on land-use planning at a local scale, including caribou recovery actions. Sub-regional plans will be built on a foundation of science and socio-economic assessments.” The target deadline for the Cold Lake sub-regional draft plan is set for the end of 2019, Bistcho Lake for spring 2020, and Upper Smoky for fall 2020.
In June, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) proposes an amended Recovery Strategy for boreal woodland caribou. This amendment identifies critical habitat for Saskatchewan’s Boreal Shield caribou (SK1). Because of high fire disturbance (55%) and low industrial disturbance (3%), SK1 range’s undisturbed critical habitat threshold is proposed at a minimum of 40% , giving the SK1 population a 71% chance of achieving a self-sustaining status. Total human-caused range disturbance is recommended to be maintained at or below 5% . For other ranges, the 65% minimum critical habitat threshold still applies, and equates to a 60% chance of becoming self-sustaining (or a 40% chance of being permanently removed from the landscape).
ECCC also releases its third 6-month Progress Report on Steps Taken to Protect Critical Habitat for boreal woodland caribou. Since the last progress report in December 2018, the Government of Canada has finalized three caribou conservation agreements – Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Saskatchewan – and completed negotiations on two draft agreements – British Columbia, and Newfoundland and Labrador – yet Alberta’s is still absent.
David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) releases Room for Both: Realizing a Future with Sustainable Economies and Healthy Caribou Populations. The report suggests how industry and conservationists can approach caribou range planning “with the intent of finding solutions and properly acknowledging trade-offs” to optimize resource-based development and restoration that meets minimum habitat requirements for self-sustaining woodland caribou. The report includes three Canadian case studies, including the October 2018 ‘Restoration Economy’ study of northwest Alberta commissioned by AWA, DSF and the Harmony Foundation.
In March, the Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park is established by the Alberta government, arising from a collaboration with Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the federal and provincial governments, and industry partners. This new park protects both the Ronald Lake wood bison population and partial tracts of the Red Earth and Richardson woodland caribou ranges.
Additionally, two draft conservation agreements under section 11 of the federal Species at Risk Act are released for Southern Mountain Caribou in British Columbia. The Narraway, Redrock-Prairie Creek, Jasper, and A La Peche southern mountain caribou in west-central Alberta are connected to B.C ranges affected by these agreements. AWA believes that the bilateral Canada-BC agreement has very fragile aspirations that can be easily postponed. By contrast, the four-way Partnership Agreement between Canada, B.C., Saulteau First Nations and West Moberly First Nations appears to be much more powerful for reducing cumulative land-use impacts to caribou ranges. It uses land-use zoning and includes upfront actions such as deferral of new tenure to start to deliver on its stated goals.
In January, Ecojustice lawyers, acting on behalf of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, AWA and David Suzuki Foundation, file a lawsuit against the federal environment minister for her failure to protect the critical habitat of five boreal caribou herds in northeastern Alberta: Red Earth, Richardson, West Side Athabasca River, East Side Athabasca River, and Cold Lake herds.
In December, the Government of Canada proposes a protection order “to support the survival and recovery of boreal caribou through the legal protection of its critical habitat” on specified lands under federal jurisdiction. AWA comments that this protection is symbolic, affecting very little caribou range area. The protection order is finalized in June 2019.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) releases its second Progress Report on Steps Taken to Protect Critical Habitat for boreal woodland caribou. The report identifies that there are still “gaps in protection” in each province and territory with boreal caribou, and more needs to be done to “reverse the loss of critical habitat and declines in boreal caribou populations.” Notable updates from the Alberta government include: a pledge to stop pine beetle-related surge clearcuts in the Little Smoky caribou range by April 30, 2021, an action that AWA has requested for years; and information that, under the current program of deferring new energy tenure auctions in caribou ranges until range plans are in place, 192,915 ha of energy leases in eight boreal caribou ranges have expired since July 2017.
In November, Alberta MP Linda Duncan addresses the federal cabinet regarding the dire situation of Alberta woodland caribou herds, and the urgent need for the environment minister to issue a safety net order.
In May, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada determines there is an imminent threat to the recovery of southern mountain woodland caribou, including the Narraway, Redrock-Prairie Creek and Jasper populations of west-central Alberta.
The Alberta government establishes 4 wildland provincial parks – Kazan, Richardson, Dillon River, Birch River, and expands Birch Mountains wildland provincial park. AWA welcomes this decision, in part as it protects significant areas of the Richardson and Red Earth caribou ranges, and provides some benefit to the Cold Lake and East Side of Athabasca River populations. Good habitat restoration and access/infrastructure disturbance limits still will be needed to enable caribou to recover in their home ranges within and outside of these new protected areas.
In April, the Canadian government issues its first Progress Report on Unprotected Critical Habitat for boreal woodland caribou. Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) section 63, these reports are due every 180 days after a recovery strategy or action plan that identifying the critical habitat is published; the Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population, in Canada was published in 2012. This report finds that caribou critical habitat is not protected in Alberta: “For Alberta, ECCC assessed the following provincial laws: the Wildlife Act; the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act; the Provincial Parks Act; the Alberta Land Stewardship Act; the Forests Act; the Public Lands Act; and the Mines and Minerals Act. With respect to the protection of critical habitat, while activities likely to destroy boreal caribou critical habitat are prohibited and regulated under various provincial laws, the discretion to authorize these activities (e.g., the issuance of permits, dispositions, licenses, agreements or approvals) is not subject to constraints consistent with those under SARA (e.g., section 73).”
In early March, the Alberta government holds 1-day multi-sector workshops to discuss potential range plan scenarios for 6 caribou ranges in west-central, northwest and northeast Alberta. Then on March 19th, the Minister of Alberta Environment and Parks announces the suspension of plans for designated areas to be set aside for caribou habitat protection in order to better understand the socio-economic costs associated with implementing Alberta’s draft Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan.
In February, the 2018 Action Plan for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal Population, in Canada: Federal Actions is published by the Government of Canada. This Action Plan acknowledges that it is “partial” and currently does not meet all requirements under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). It commits to work towards its completion by supporting provinces, territories and indigenous communities with finalizing caribou range plans, then integrating them into the larger framework to create a “specific, measureable, achievable, and time-bound” conservation strategy.
To support public open houses during the consultation period for the draft provincial caribou range plan, Alberta releases an Engagement and Planning document outlining the current states of the 15 caribou ranges – where the highest total anthropogenic disturbance is 99% (ranges: Little Smoky, Narraway, Slave Lake) and the lowest is 36% (range: Richardson).
In December, Alberta releases a draft Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan for public comment. It describes current habitat disturbance and population trends by range, and lists potentially useful industry access and habitat restoration strategies. However, it does not include timelines, maps or commitments of how or when minimum caribou habitat requirements will ever be reached.
In November, Ecojustice, on behalf of AWA, Cold Lake First Nations and David Suzuki Foundation, petitions the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada to issue a safety net order to protect critical habitat of northeast Alberta caribou populations.
In October, the Alberta government misses a 5-year deadline to produce caribou range plans that prescribe how ranges will be managed to achieve at least 65% undisturbed habitat. The federal government issues a 5-year progress report on implementation of the 2012 Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population, in Canada. It finds that human-caused disturbance in ten Alberta boreal ranges actually has increased since the Recovery Strategy was released; disturbance dropped slightly in the two most remote northwest ranges, Bistcho and Yates.
AWA and conservation partners launch the website Caribou4ever.ca, an information resource for all who want to help woodland caribou survive and recover to naturally self-sustaining levels.
AWA, along with the David Suzuki Foundation and Ontario Nature, spotlights the lack of caribou habitat protection by publishing online industrial “hot spot” maps for the Chinchaga (Alberta), Pipmuacan (Quebec) and Brightsand (Ontario) caribou ranges. The interactive ‘slider’ satellite image maps highlight new habitat loss in the five years since the federal boreal caribou Recovery Strategy’s release. During the ‘Quarters for Caribou’ postcards campaign, hundreds of real and virtual postcards signed by concerned Albertans are sent to the Premier’s office.
On September 27th, Alberta Energy announced that no new energy or mining sales will occur in caribou ranges until “stringent operating practices” have been defined. AWA is concerned about what “stringent operating practices” will mean on the ground, and suggest that clear surface disturbance limits need to be set that will enhance, not detract from, caribou recovery efforts.
In June, the Alberta government releases a draft range plan for public comment for the west central Little Smoky-A La Peche caribou. The draft plan proposes habitat restoration, energy project guidelines, and some limited short-term forestry reductions but does not indicate how long-term caribou habitat requirements will be achieved in those two ranges. The Government also commits to establish three Wildland Provincial Parks in northwest Alberta caribou ranges that will not adversely affect existing energy leases, in areas without existing forestry. These protected areas are proposed in the range plan mediator’s May 2016 final report.
In March, between 2013/14 and 2015/16, the Alberta First Nations Technical Services Advisory Group conducts boreal caribou monitoring with members from the Dene Tha’ First Nation, Trout Lake First Nation, Loon River First Nation, and Whitefish Lake (Atikameg) First Nation. This initiative contributes to Alberta boreal caribou population data, exchanges Indigenous knowledge, and supports Indigenous peoples to participate in caribou monitoring as well as other careers in Science and Technology.
From September to December, the Alberta government commits to achieving self-sustaining caribou populations and defers sales of new energy leases in all Alberta caribou ranges until range plans are finalized. In December, the provincial government appoints a Little Smoky-A La Peche mediator to meet with indigenous communities and with multi-sector stakeholders including AWA, in order to advance range plans for these caribou populations.
In August, AWA finds that no new energy rights within any Alberta caribou ranges are scheduled for future sales. Two in-range licences 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.
In July, the Little Smoky-A La Peche Ministerial Task Force report is completed. It reflects early 2015 government-industry discussions, scenarios and analysis that excluded indigenous communities and environmental groups.
In April, in a news release AWA reveals that on April 29th, in the midst of an election, the Alberta government plans another major auction of new oil and gas leases on 35,600 hectares (356 km2) of endangered mountain and boreal woodland caribou habitat, without rules to reduce surface disturbance below current excessive levels. Since September 2014 the Prentice government has auctioned over 1600 km2 of Alberta caribou ranges for oil and gas leases.
On March 5th, an AWA news release warns of Alberta government plans to auction new oil and gas leases on 21,000 hectares (212 km2) of endangered Redrock-Prairie Creek mountain woodland caribou habitat, in the Kakwa region of west central Alberta, without rules to reduce surface disturbance below current excessive levels. The Redrock-Prairie Creek population is estimated to have declined from 212 animals in 2009 to 127 in 2012, a 40% decline. This population was rated as ‘Stable’ in 2004 when Alberta’s ineffective 10-year caribou recovery plan was put in place.
On March 6, the Alberta government postpones the auction within the endangered Redrock Prairie Creek mountain woodland caribou range. AWA welcomes this decision and calls on the Alberta government to defer further energy lease sales in endangered caribou ranges until effective rules are in place to protect and recover their habitat.
Following this decision, the Alberta government posts new energy leases for sale in the same endangered mountain woodland caribou range in west central Alberta where it cancelled lease sales on March 6. AWA asks the Alberta government for consistent decisions to recover Redrock-Prairie Creek and Narraway mountain woodland caribou, and requests adoption of the principles of the Alberta Conservation Association’s 2012 proposal for Redrock-Prairie Creek caribou range management.
In December, the Alberta government-led Little Smoky-A La Peche Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group (MSAG) ends without completing a report or any recommendations.
In May, Alberta’s mountain caribou are assessed as ‘endangered’ – in immediate danger of extinction – by Canada’s Species at Risk Act scientist advisors – Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Yet the Alberta government plans to sell off a further 1,765 hectares of energy leases in these endangered caribou ranges from May 14th to June 25th, 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.
In August, Alberta’s Little Smoky-A La Peche Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Group (MSAG) starts. MSAG’s final report is targeted for mid-2014.
In July, the Alberta government extends its deferral of the sale of new mineral rights in Little Smoky to include some forestry activities in the same area. The newly approved forest management plan for Alberta Newsprint Company (ANC) includes a one-year deferral across the Little Smoky herd range. The logging deferral will exclude logging from 35% of the forest management agreement area held by ANC Timber, Ltd., better known as Alberta Newsprint Company (ANC). However, intensive logging so far remains within ANC’s newly government-approved 10-year harvest plan in the adjacent A La Peche caribou herd’s critical habitat.
In May, the Alberta government announces that, for the first time, it is deferring the sale of new mineral rights across the entire ranges of two of its fifteen caribou herds – the Little Smoky and A La Peche ranges – until Cabinet first adopts range plans describing how critical habitat will be protected to recover those two populations. AWA welcomes this decision.
In March, the Alberta government sells new petroleum and natural gas lease sales in five threatened caribou range areas, despite already unacceptably high industrial disturbance of caribou habitat in those areas. AWA calls on the Alberta government to cease new surface leasing and new disturbance permits in Alberta caribou ranges and to make good on its promises to maintain and restore caribou habitat.
In February, AWA writes an open letter to Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes, urging that planned auctions of new energy dispositions in the Little Smoky caribou population range in February, March and April 2013 not proceed. AWA notes that despite horizontal drilling technology that could consolidate new exploration and production on a reduced footprint, the Alberta government continues to issue leases and approve new surface disturbance including in the 5% of the Little Smoky caribou range that was formerly intact. This violates the provincial government’s 2011 Woodland Caribou Policy for Alberta that states the immediate priority is maintenance of habitat, followed by habitat restoration.
In January, AWA denounces extensive new disturbance in the Little Smoky caribou range as violating the 2011 Woodland Caribou Policy for Alberta. AWA visits and documents significant new road, well site and pipeline corridor disturbance within the last 5% intact area of the Little Smoky’s range.
In October, the Government of Canada releases the final federal Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population, in Canada, five years past the ‘mandatory’ deadline for final recovery strategy under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). Provinces and territories are given 5 years to develop range plans outlining how they will manage each of their boreal woodland caribou ranges to achieve a minimum of 65% undisturbed habitat over time, which would provide a 60% probability for populations to be self-sustaining.
Strong public pressure appears to have helped improve the final Recovery Strategy. There are much better goals of showing progress every 5 years towards a 65% undisturbed habitat target for even the most vulnerable herds. This is important for Alberta’s boreal caribou, whose undisturbed habitat as of 2010 ranged from only 43%(Caribou Mountains) to a mere 5% (Little Smoky). The final strategy rejects the draft strategy’s unacceptable preference for wolf kills and clearly gives the most urgency to landscape level planning and to habitat protection and restoration.
It would be better if the plan’s undisturbed target was set higher, at 80% chance to be self-sustaining. But given that Alberta populations’ habitat is so highly disturbed now, achieving 65% intact habitat would be significant progress. AWA calls for swift range plan development by Alberta and on-the-ground actions to meet the targets.
In April, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) releases a stewardship strategy for the management of caribou and wood bison in a huge area of northeastern Alberta. The report is titled Níh boghodi: We are the stewards of our land. An ACFN stewardship strategy for thunzea, et’thén and dechen yághe ejere (woodland caribou, barren-ground caribou and wood bison). The report calls for two huge zones: a Protection Zone in the north, and a Stewardship Zone further south.
The Protection zone would include: No new industrial developments; no licenses, leases, authorizations, or permits on the land without ACFN’s written consent; and provincial and federal governments to fund and work with ACFN to implement a program of habitat reclamation where habitat has already been degraded.
The Stewardship zone would include: Total disturbance area within stewardship zone not to exceed 20% ; no industrial footprints to exceed one hectare per square kilometer in any given square kilometer; and maximum linear disturbance threshold of 0.4 km/km2 within the stewardship zone as a whole
In March, the federal government posts a Notice on the Species at Risk Act public registry that it “intends to post a final [boreal caribou] Recovery Strategy in late spring 2012” due to the volume and nature of public comments received on the draft strategy, and due to ongoing consultations with Aboriginal communities.
In February, an extended public consultation period on the draft federal Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population, in Canada ends February 22, 2012. The government receives 14,000 public comments. Environment Minister Peter Kent suggests the government will delay releasing the final Recovery Strategy beyond the required 30-day window.
In January, Federal Environment Minister Kent makes a decision not to recommend emergency protection of critical habitat for threatened caribou herds in northeastern Alberta.
Global Forest Watch Canada issues a report titled “Canada’s woodland caribou: Industrial disturbances in their ranges and implications for their survival”. The eight boreal woodland caribou populations within Alberta’s bitumen (oil sands) region had 64% of their habitat disturbed by industry as of 2010, compared to a Canada-wide average of 14% (these are disturbances buffered by 500 m). As of June 2011, 83% of caribou ranges within Alberta’s oil sands areas had oil sands leases. 80% undisturbed habitat is needed for caribou herds likely to be self-sustaining, according to Environment Canada’ s science assessment.
In November, Parks Canada releases a proposed Conservation Strategy for Southern Mountain Caribou in Canada’s National Parks. AWA comments on the strategy, and is supportive of habitat-related measures: reducing human, deer and elk access into caribou ranges, thereby reducing wolf access. AWA will only support translocation, and limited use of cow-calf penning or predator management, if there is a clear priority placed on habitat-related actions.
In August, the Government of Canada releases a years-overdue proposed Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population, in Canada. “The long-term recovery goal for boreal caribou is to achieve self-sustaining local populations throughout their distribution in Canada to the extent possible”. This is weaker than the 2007 federal recovery goal supported by the AWA, which was: “Boreal caribou are conserved, and recovered to self-sustaining levels, throughout their current distribution (extent of occurrence) in Canada.”
For herds at greatest risk of extinction because of habitat loss, including seven of Alberta’s 12 herds, the strategy proposes that undisturbed critical habitat may decrease to a mere 5% as long as jurisdictions provide a plan to stabilize populations “through the use of mortality and habitat management tools.” AWA immediately and strongly criticizes this policy in a news release, stating “The war on wolves goes national.”
For herds that are not self-sustaining but are important to maintain connectivity across Canada, which includes Alberta’s remaining 5 herds, the strategy proposes that undisturbed habitat must increase over 50 years to provide 65% undisturbed habitat in the herd’s total range. This 65% habitat target, if reached, will only provide a 60% chance a population will be self-sustaining.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent is quoted in a Canadian Press article August 26th, 2011 that the plan means killing wolves. “Predator control has been chosen,” he said. “That bothers me a great deal. It certainly disturbs me that 100 wolves have to be killed to protect four caribou calves.”
On July 28th, The federal court decision is announced in response to legal action by AWA, Pembina Institute, and Alberta Ecojustice, seeking a court order to force federal Environment Minister Kent to recommend emergency protection of critical habitat for threatened caribou herds in northeastern Alberta. The Federal Court overturns the minister’s decision not to recommend emergency protection for caribou. “It is not immediately apparent how, given the foregoing facts, the Minister reasonably could have concluded that there are no imminent threats to the national recovery of boreal caribou,” Justice Crampton writes in his decision.
Also in July, a major new science and policy briefing note issued by the International Boreal Conservation Science (IBCS) Panel: Keeping woodland caribou in the boreal forest: Big challenge, immense opportunity. The report is clear: “To conserve woodland caribou means dispensing with business as usual, which has demonstrably and repeatedly failed to meet caribou conservation needs.”
The report emphasizes that recovery is achievable: “Although the challenge of conserving caribou may look daunting, science indicates that both caribou conservation and resource exploitation are possible—if society makes room for caribou in the boreal forest in its plans and desires for the future.”
But the challenges are substantial, including:
“The consequences of today’s actions, or inaction, will reverberate for at least a half-century.”
“Caribou need old forests, typically more than 50 years old, and they range over large areas, often thousands of square kilometres. Managing the boreal forest must occur at commensurate scales in time and space. Planning must consider the long term, in accordance with the long-term consequences of present-day human activities in the boreal forest.”
“The viability of a caribou population declines in the midst of disturbances to habitat, whether natural or human-caused. Such disturbances need to be considered cumulatively. Current understanding suggests that disturbed areas must not encompass more than about one-third of a population’s range if the population is to persist.”
“Ensuring a future for woodland caribou populations must include a margin for error, in recognition of many uncertainties and the need to keep management options open. Protected areas provide insurance against unfavourable outcomes as well as a template for evaluating the effectiveness of management prescriptions beyond protected areas’ boundaries.”
In an accompanying letter to the Alberta government, the IBCS Panel writes: “Now more than ever, urgent action is required by the Alberta government to sustain caribou populations throughout the province. We appreciate that the Land Use Framework provides new tools for establishing new thresholds for development and opportunities for conservation. We therefore recommend that your government act now to protect key habitats and implement a comprehensive caribou protection plan to ensure that this iconic species is sustained for future generations.”
On June 21st, AWA, along with Pembina Institute and Ecojustice, take the federal Environment Minister, Peter Kent, to court, seeking a court order to force the minister to recommend emergency protection of critical habitat for threatened caribou herds in northeastern Alberta. The groups point out that the Government of Alberta’s reluctance to introduce any meaningful caribou habitat protection through its recent Lower Athabasca Regional Plan makes immediate federal action even more critical.
“Alberta’s chronic failure to protect its caribou means the federal government must step in with emergency protections before it’s too late,” says Cliff Wallis, AWA vice-president in a news release. “If they continue to ignore Alberta’s reckless behaviour, the feds will be complicit in the disappearance of these majestic animals from Alberta’s forests.”
The Government of Alberta produces a Cabinet-approved two‐page woodland caribou policy stating “The Government of Alberta is committed to achieving naturally sustaining woodland caribou populations… Actions will be taken to address caribou habitat needs, including achievement of those requirements in land-use planning and approvals.. Maintaining caribou habitat is the immediate priority. Restoring caribou habitat is a critical component of caribou habitat management.” There are no concrete actions, nor any schedule for planning and implementing further actions.
A report by Global Forest Watch Canada demonstrates clearly that the draft Regional Plan for the Lower Athabasca region will fail to protect caribou habitat. Under the draft Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, a mere 4% of caribou habitat in the region would benefit from new protection. This would add to the meagre 3% already protected.
In February, the Alberta government admits that it will be ignoring the advice of its own scientists to change the status of caribou from threatened to endangered, despite clear evidence that caribou numbers continue to decline.
The government’s Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC) makes recommendations to the minister of Sustainable Resource Development on the status of Alberta wildlife. The ESCC is a ‘stakeholder’ committee, including representatives from the Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA), Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Western Stockgrowers’ Association. As a non-expert committee, they often take scientific advice from their own Scientific Subcommittee. But when the Subcommittee recommends in December 2010 that the plight of woodland caribou was so dire that they should be downgraded from threatened to endangered, their advice is ignored. The Alberta government refuses to publish the recommendations of the Scientific Subcommittee, and so the reason why the ESCC decided to ignore the advice of its own scientists is unclear. AWA initiates an application under Freedom of Information legislation to see the reports from the ESCC and its scientific subcommittee.
In July, the Alberta government publishes the 2010 update of the report, Status of the Woodland Caribou in Alberta. The language in the report makes it very clear that, after 23 years of Alberta’s caribou “recovery” process, the picture remains dire for the species.
“Of the 13 populations with sufficient monitoring data, 10 are demonstrating population decline. The 10 caribou populations documented to be in decline occupy 83% of the total area of current caribou range in Alberta, and constitute the majority of caribou occurring in the province.”
“Approximately 70% of all caribou in Alberta occur in populations that are known to be declining.”
“More provincial caribou populations are now in sustained population decline than was the case when the first edition of this status document was prepared in 2001.”
“Levels of habitat alteration from industrial developments are high on most caribou ranges in the province and projections forecast continued high levels of future industrial activity… Provincial land-use guidelines for industrial activities have not succeeded (as a sole tool) in providing for long-term caribou population and habitat conservation, and guidelines for caribou habitat protection currently are not being applied in all caribou ranges within the province.”
One of Jasper National Park’s three remaining populations, the Maligne Valley herd, crashes to just four members. The new Management Plan for Jasper National Park does not address this population, despite calls from AWA and other organizations to close the Maligne road to winter use which would offer some protection to the caribou herd.
In August, Ecojustice, on behalf of AWA, Pembina Institute and Sierra Club Prairie Chapter, petition federal Minister of the Environment, Jim Prentice, to adopt emergency measures under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) to protect caribou herds in northeastern Alberta. Their letter calls for a halt to further industrial activity in caribou ranges until a recovery plan and habitat protection measures — mandated by species legislation — are in place.
The letter supports a demand made by local First Nations in July, when the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Enoch Cree Nation, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation demanded that the minister provide emergency protection for herds on their traditional lands.
In February, AWA and other Alberta conservation groups called for an emergency order from the Federal Environment Minister to enforce habitat protection for the endangered woodland caribou herds in the foothills and tar sands.
In December, following an avalanche in early 2009 that wiped out all members of the small remaining caribou herd, the draft management plan for Banff National Park recommends investigating reintroduction of caribou into the park.
In November, AWA and other provincial conservation groups distribute copies of a provincial government recovery plan for Alberta’s endangered woodland caribou. The Action Plan for West-Central Alberta Caribou Recovery authorized ongoing logging and oil and gas development in the caribou home ranges north of Hinton and Grande Cache, despite more than two dozen Alberta government and science reports, consultations and recovery plans for caribou released since the late 1970s that show industrial impacts on forests and wildlife as the root cause of caribou decline.
In April, the remaining four members of Banff’s caribou herd are all killed in an avalanche. This becomes the first extirpation of a large mammal in a Canadian National Park in more than a century.
Also in April, an Environment Canada report, Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population in Canada, is published. The report concludes that half of Canada’s boreal caribou herds are in decline and could die off unless their habitat is better protected, and points to logging and energy production as big threats. The Conservative government takes the extraordinary step of distancing itself from the report.
While caribou habitat remains unprotected, another 120 wolves are killed in caribou range between April 2008 and March 2009. Increased numbers of hunting licences are also issued to try to reduce moose numbers in caribou habitat.
On May 20th, AWA, along with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Federation of Alberta Naturalists, and the Athabasca Bioregional Society write to Dr. Marco Festa-Bianchet, co-chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada’s (COSEWIC) Terrestrial Mammals Species Specialist Subcommittee requesting COSEWIC assess the status of the Little Smoky local population of woodland caribou. In the letter, the groups submit that the Little Smoky herd is both particularly imperiled relative to the wider boreal population of woodland caribou and both geographically and genetically distinct from the boreal population.
The Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA), an industry group, tells AWA that it no longer supports the recommendations of the Alberta Caribou Committee (ACC), of which it is a member. AWA calls for the removal of the AFPA from the ACC on the grounds that it is not acting in good faith. The AFPA had previously agreed not to clear-cut log in caribou habitat areas, even with the advent of a pine beetle outbreak.
In February, the federal response to the woodland caribou question – that is, whether or not it must actively protect habitat – as delivered by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Commission on Environmental Cooperation, is delayed pending the resolution of spotted owl proceedings. The federal government claims that the spotted owl ruling will affect the outcome of legal actions with respect to woodland caribou.
AWA releases another 9 public statements calling on government and industry to honour their commitments to caribou conservation.
The province implements a wolf-culling program without addressing long-term habitat protection issues. This action contradicts caribou management plans dating back 30 years and the opinions expressed by members of the Alberta Caribou Committee, AWA and the public. Applications for energy development, including improved roads, wells and pipelines, continue without resistance from government officials.
National environmental groups send a petition to the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) claiming that the federal government has failed to protect critical habitat for endangered species with specific reference to woodland caribou in Alberta. The CEC is the environmental watchdog of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and was set in place to ensure that partner nations enforce their own environmental laws (i.e., to minimize trade advantages for countries in violation of domestic environmental laws). CEC rulings are non-binding but politically significant.
By the end of 2006, the provincial government has directed forest companies like Weyerhauser to log forests in critical caribou habitat in order to minimize impacts from recent mountain pine beetle (MPB) attacks. The goal of this strategy is the widespread conversion of older forests, which are susceptible to MPB attack, to plantations of younger trees. The provincial strategy to combat MPB is in direct contradiction to previously established caribou management agreements.
AWA makes more than 7 public announcements, along with other conservation organizations, calling on the government to adhere to its commitment to protect caribou habitat after recent research presented by University of Alberta biologists indicates that provincial land-use guidelines for caribou habitat are being violated by industry.
The province announces the creation of the Alberta Caribou Committee (ACC), which includes the Boreal Caribou Committee (1999), the West Central Caribou Committee (1992), the Provincial Caribou Recovery Team (2001) and other stakeholders. The province says it will further engage First Nations people (who are still exempt from the caribou hunting ban) in caribou management, promote industry best practices for operating on caribou lands, and implement a predator control program. The ACC is expected to produce a management plan by 2007. They announce that the provincial caribou population is 2500 to 4000 individuals.
The province releases the Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan, authored by 13 representatives of the forestry and petroleum industries, provincial and federal government, academia, and community groups. The plan’s two recovery goals are to: 1) achieve self-sustaining woodland caribou herds and maintain the distribution of caribou in Alberta and 2) ensure that long-term habitat requirements are met within Alberta’s caribou ranges. The Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, David Coutts, adopts the plan with the notable exception of “the recommendation in Section 7.2 relating to a moratorium on further mineral and timber allocations on specific caribou ranges.” These “specific caribou ranges” refer to herds “at immediate risk of extirpation or extinction” and the recommendation itself states: “A moratorium on further mineral and timber resource allocation (or 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.”
In their 2005 Annual Performance Monitoring Report, CANFOR announces it will voluntarily defer logging on the Little Smoky Caribou Herd range, which covers one-sixth of their Forest Management Agreement (FMA), for two years starting in the winter of 2005/2006. In the same document, CANFOR and Suncor announce they will commence an integrated landscape management approach, with the overall goal to minimize their environmental footprints in northwestern Alberta. They also agree to start a “caribou habitat restoration/reforestation project.”
In winter 2005/06, an intensive annual wolf cull sponsored by the provincial government began in two west central Alberta ranges, Little Smoky and A La Peche.
Weyerhaeuser announces the cessation of logging activities in 82,000 hectares (820 km2) of forested area in west-central Alberta for the next 5 years based on research they supported. AWA and other environmental groups in the province issue a press release calling on the government to implement a comprehensive, multi-sector approach to caribou management.
Suncor/ConocoPhillips propose the construction of a 101-km-long sour gas pipeline through the home range of the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds. Development to begin in December 2004.
On June 1, the third phase of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) is put into force. The third phase includes SARA prohibitions, offenses and enforcement. It is now illegal to kill, capture or harm a listed species or to damage important habitat for a listed species.
On March 24, the federal government enacts the first phase of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), followed by the second phase on June 5. The first phase sets out amendments to the Canadian Wildlife Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Wild Animal and Plant Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act. The second phase promotes the protection of species at risk through collaborative efforts, including the required establishment of several action plans, reports, agreements and committees.
Under Schedule 1, both the boreal and southern mountain populations of woodland caribou were included as two of the 68 threatened species (out of 233 total species) listed under this first edition of SARA.
The Alberta Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) forms the Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Team.
The recommendations made in 1996 by the multi-stakeholder Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy Development Committee formed in 1993 have yet to be implemented by senior officials in the provincial government. The provincial government publishes Status of the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Alberta which states: “On the whole, there have been reductions in some populations and the distribution of caribou in Alberta has contracted, but the number of Woodland Caribou currently in Alberta remains largely unknown.”
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC) re-designates the status of caribou as Threatened.
Regional caribou management standing committees merge into the Boreal Caribou Committee. The committee comprises industry and provincial government officials only.
Alberta’s Wildlife Act regulations are amended to allow a distinction between Endangered and Threatened categories. Woodland Caribou are placed in the Threatened category.
Caribou are downgraded to the provincial Blue List. Caribou are now defined as species that may be at risk and have undergone irregular declines in population, habitat, or reductions in provincial distribution.
The provincial caribou population is estimated to be 3600 to 6700 individuals.
The multi-stakeholder Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy Development Committee (WCCSDC) formed in 1993 releases Alberta’s Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy. The goal is “healthy populations in perpetuity throughout Alberta’s caribou range”. It recommends that “No significant new clearing of coniferous forests beyond existing commitments should be considered until caribou habitat supply analyses are completed.” It is not implemented. The 1996 strategy mentions wolf culls only as a last resort.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) re-designates the status of caribou to Vulnerable.
An Information Letter (IL 94-22) put out by the Energy Utilities Board (EUB), the regulatory arm of the oil and gas industry, states “It is anticipated that significant flexibility on the part of both the operator and AEP will be required to ensure that the plans are able to effectively meet the two goals of allowing energy development while adequately protecting woodland caribou…Industrial activity can occur on caribou range provided that the integrity and supply of habitat is maintained to permit its use by caribou.”
The Strategy for Conservation of Woodland Caribou in Alberta is drafted by Alberta’s Fish and Wildlife Division. It specifically mentions the logging industry as the biggest threat to caribou survival in Alberta. “No approach has been demonstrated to be effective in maintaining caribou populations in association with timber harvest in the long term.” The strategy recommendations were not adopted. A multi-stakeholder committee known as the Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy Development Committee (WCCSDC) is formed to address caribou conservation and develop another strategy.
Regional standing committees comprising industry and government representatives are created to reduce land-use conflicts in caribou management areas. The wildlife sanctuary along Highway 40, first officially recommended in 1986, is designated.
Caribou are put on the provincial Red List of threatened species, defined as species that are at risk and have declined, or are in immediate danger of declining to a nonviable population size.
Alberta Energy releases Operating Guidelines for Industrial Activity in Caribou Range (IL 91-17 ).
In February, in a letter to the Edmonton Journal on February 11th, Assistant Deputy Minister of Alberta Forestry, Fish and Wildlife outlines Alberta’s policy on wildlife management: “It is recognized that any restoration plan for these ungulate populations must address all the factors which are influencing their viability, including the provision of needed habitat, the control of access and the regulation of hunting.”
Caribou are listed as an Endangered Species under Alberta’s Wildlife Act (‘Threatened’ is not an available classification). Another caribou management plan is drafted by the Fish and Wildlife division of the Alberta government, the Woodland Caribou Provincial Restoration Plan, with 5 main recommendations:
1. control predators (70% reduction in wolf populations);
2. conduct a proper population inventory;
3. reduce human-caused mortality in caribou (due to poaching) by creating a wildlife sanctuary along Highway 40 and the Forestry Trunk Road;
4. maintain and protect habitat;
5. increase public awareness of caribou.
The Federation of Alberta Naturalists withdraws its support for the Woodland Caribou Provincial Restoration Plan over government proposals to cull 70% of wolves near Jasper National Park. None of the recommendations from this report are adopted.
Caribou are designated an Endangered Species by the Policy for the Management of Threatened Wildlife in Alberta, legislated under Alberta’s Wildlife Act.
Calgary Herald reports that caribou poaching continues in areas near Grande Cache. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recognizes the woodland caribou as a rare species. A provincial report suggests that the west-central Alberta caribou population has dropped to 300 individuals from a high of 1200 to 1800 in 1968. The report cites habitat loss, poaching and predation as the primary causes of the decline. The report also provides detailed timber harvesting and access guidelines for the management of caribou habitat areas.
Regional biologist and provincial caribou coordinator, Michael Bloomfield, resigns after his superiors in government continue to ignore recommendations for caribou protection as wolf culling programs are being discussed (Edmonton Journal, April 4, 1987).
Provincial biologists continue to push decision-makers to ban hunting and, later this same year, the second province-wide ban on caribou hunting commences. Provincial biologists propose that caribou be designated a Threatened Species. Michael Bloomfield, provincial biologist and caribou management coordinator for Alberta, states that to protect caribou “all that is required is the resolve and inter-departmental commitment to solve the problem.”
Provincial biologists suggest that the population of caribou has declined by at least 50% in the past 15 years. A Calgary Herald article reports that Fred McDougall, then Deputy Minister of Renewable Resources, says that “it would only be fair” if hunters were given a year warning on a possible hunting ban. This year was the second year in a row that AWA, along with the 25,000-member Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA), has called on the government to ban caribou hunting.
A letter to AWA from J.E. Bud Miller, Associate Minister of Public Lands and Wildlife, states: “Our department shares your view that caribou need protection and we are quickly moving in that direction. I can assure you that caribou are now a high priority and will continue to receive our best efforts regardless of our management strategy.”
AWA and AFGA lead the charge in calling for the suspension of caribou hunting in Alberta.
Provincial population estimates are close to 3000, indicating a decline from the 1960s. A government biologist is quoted in the Calgary Herald suggesting that the decline of caribou is due to industrial activities. The Edson Leader quotes provincial biologist and caribou management coordinator Michael Bloomfield: “We have no other choice. Continued hunting and unrestricted development in caribou range could result in the disappearance of our resident populations.”
Provincial biologists, in conjunction with Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) and other Alberta conservation groups, establish the Caribou Management Outline for Alberta. Noteworthy recommendations from this work include the following:
Province-wide population is estimated at around 5000 individuals.
The population of caribou begins declining once again, with an estimated size of 600 to 700 animals in the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA; now known as the Willmore Wilderness Park). Oil and gas exploration activities increase substantially in backcountry areas. Backcountry road development facilitates hunting and poaching of caribou.
Approximately 100 animals are harvested; 554 licensed hunters.
A railroad is built from Grande Cache to Hinton, bisecting the seasonal migration route of mountain caribou.
According to a provincial status report from the late 1960s, growing interest in caribou hunting from the public should be paralleled by an improved management plan on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Division. Industrial development booms in the area as the population of Grande Cache grows from 500 in 1950 to over 4000 by the end of the 1960s.
Government biologists estimate the size of the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA) herd to be 1200-1600 individuals. Antlered season (adult males and females) is opened, and 76 animals are harvested; 360 licensed hunters. Other estimates of the provincial caribou population are closer to 9000 individuals.
Sixty-three animals are harvested in the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA); 120 licensed hunters.
Noted big-game hunter Jack O’Connor reports that the Smoky River area has an abundant diversity of mixed-game; this includes observations of several hundred caribou in 1943. In 1961 he returns to the area and does not find a single caribou. O’Connor blames easy access to backcountry areas from oil roads, noting that “unless there is a change for the better, the Smoky River caribou herd must certainly be extinct today.”
Government biologists estimate there are 800-1000 caribou.
Published manuscripts suggest that habitat destruction, mainly logging, is causing the decline of caribou due to caribou favoring mature forests to those which have been recently logged and are in early seral stages
Government biologists estimate the size of the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA) herd to be 200-300 individuals.
For unidentified reasons the province re-opens the hunting season, according to a recent government report. An average of 19 animals are harvested per year during subsequent years.
Province-wide ban on caribou hunting. Annual provincial government reports note the continued scarcity of caribou in the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA).
Government report suggests that the decline of caribou in the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA) is due to caribou emigration to British Columbia. Guides, hunters, and forest officers report a near total absence of caribou in areas north of Jasper National Park.
Male-only season in the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA); caribou hunting is banned in the rest of Alberta.
Two harsh winters are thought to have further decimated caribou populations.
Timber activities in the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA) grow until the area has the highest timber extraction rates of any Forest Reserve in the province by 1945.
Caribou hunting is restricted to north of the Brazeau River.
Provincial report acknowledges the overall decline of wildlife species, including caribou, in areas where logging companies operate.
Government report suggests southern range contraction, with no caribou herd found south of the Hay (or Wildhay) River.
Provincial government recommends minimal protection for this species due to declining numbers through the 1920s. No such protection was implemented. Population estimates are thought be more than 2000 individuals.
Provincial government reports a “stable” population of caribou.
Province-wide hunting season, one caribou per hunter, an average of 40 animals are harvested per year.
Distribution is thought to be discontinuous over two-thirds of the province throughout the mixed coniferous, boreal forest zone and the mountainous areas north of Banff National Park.