Episode available within Canada only.

Everyone has seen a woodland caribou on a quarter but very few of us have actually ever seen one in the wild. They're known as the grey ghosts of the boreal forest. They move around in small groups and are notoriously hard to find.  It's even more difficult since their numbers are declining across the country, especially in Alberta, where prime caribou habitat also happens to have prime lumber resources and oil and gas deposits.  

All photos courtesy of © Mark Bradley, Boreal Nature Photos

Biologists have been sounding the alarm about the caribou crisis in Alberta for decades. Michael Bloomfield conducted one of the first detailed studies of woodland caribou when he was working as the province's first caribou specialist in the early 1980s. Alberta's been documenting their decline ever since. Even in the National Parks they're in trouble. The remaining caribou in Banff died in an avalanche in 2009.

Caribou are indicators of the health of the boreal forest. Canada's vast boreal forest purifies the air and water and is home to billions of animals. It's Canada's largest ecosystem and covers more than half of the country, but only 10% of it is protected. When the forest is fragmented by resource development caribou are vulnerable.

The battle over the future of the boreal forest and caribou in Alberta is raising tough questions about the place of wildlife in our world.

Big oil wants to expand their operations and they feel that the damage to the landscape they are causing can be mitigated by habitat restoration, and they are proposing  ideas like massive fenced in exclosures that would protect caribou, by removing all of the predators, but still allow oil development to continue. Environmental organizations and First Nations argue that too much damage will be done and that land must be set aside for caribou. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has produced their own stewardship strategy to protect caribou habitat and their way of life, but industry and government seem uninterested.

All photos courtesy of © Mark Bradley, Boreal Nature Photos

The most critically disturbed caribou habitat in Canada is the Little Smoky range north east of Jasper National Park. Only 5% of intact forest remains. Trapper Ken Cowles has a cabin in the middle of it. He used to see caribou all the time and now they're gone because the gas companies are moving in. The Alberta government has been killing an average of 100 wolves a year for 8 years to protect the caribou in Little Smoky, but they are still selling oil and gas leases in the caribou range.

On October 5, 2012 the Federal Government released a recovery strategy for boreal caribou that is designed to ensure that Canada has self-sustaining boreal caribou populations from coast to coast. The Minister of the Environment, Peter Kent, is confident that Alberta has both the intention and the capacity to meet its obligations to the recovery strategy. Trapper Ken Cowles is not so sure.

We still have time to ensure that Alberta's woodland caribou don't disappear and we have the laws to protect them, but will we?

Credits (Click to expand)

directed, produced and written by        
Catherine Legge

Lisa Ellenwood

Murray Green

Dave Rae

additional cinematography
Andrew Manske,
John Badcock

location sound
Carey Opper
Virginia Moore

additional location sound
Gary Bruckner

sound design
Alan Geldart

graphic design

art director
Terry O’Neill

senior designers
Vinit Menon
Philip Street

visual research
Gina Cali

Alan Geldart
Sid Lieberman

Peter Jorgensen

music consultant
Patrick Russell

online editing
Edwin Wilkinson

re-recording mix
Mark Wright

associate director
Renée Moreau

resource coordinators
Analisa Amoroso
Megan Beeckmans

unit manager
June Hall

production manager
David Wilson

Annette Bradford
Robert Ballantyne
Olena Sullivan

senior producers
Caroline Underwood
FM Morrison

executive producer
Sue Dando

special thanks
Alberta Wilderness Association, Carolyn Campbell
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation
Calgary Zoo
Ecojustice, Alberta
Elk Island National Park of Canada
Fish Creek Provincial Park, Calgary
Jasper National Park of Canada
Pembina Institute, Simon Dyer
Robert Serrouya
Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton
University of Alberta
Adam Shular, Highland Helicopters
Clay Wilson, Bighorn Helicopters

additional images   
Parks Canada
Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI)
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS)
CBC Archives
Mark Bradley
Michael Bloomfield
Melissa Gorrie
Pay Dirt Pictures Inc
River Road Films Ltd
Karvonen Film Ltd.
The Image Works Alberta Inc.
Compass Media Inc.
National Film Board of Canada

produced with the participation of CMF and The Nature of Things
with David Suzuki

produced by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

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