Not all measures to protect Alberta caribou welcome by local communities

Since the end of the 1970s, the provincial government has put measures in place to try to curb of Alberta's caribou heads, but not all of them are welcomed by local communities.

Caribou patrol is an initiative created the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation

The provincial government has put measures in place since the end of the 1970s to try to curb the decline of caribou herds, but not all of them are welcomed by local communities. (Mike Bedell/CPAWS/Canadian Press)

There was a time when caribou were a common part of the northern Alberta landscape.

Now, the animals are rarely seen.

In the region of Grande Cache, there are about 500 left, according to the government of Alberta.

The provincial government has put measures in place since the end of the 1970s to try to curb their decline, but not all of them are welcomed by local communities.

Stephanie Leonard and Larry McDonald are part of the caribou patrol, an initiative created the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation and partly funded by the government of Alberta.

Stephanie Leonard works with the caribou patrol, which raises awareness about the presence of caribou in the area and tries to stop them from getting hit by vehicles. (Geneviève Tardiff)

During caribou migration, the patrol drives along Highway 40 almost every day, trying to stop the remaining animals from getting hit by vehicles. 

"At first step would be to slow down and drive past it slowly," said Leonard, environmental co-ordinator for the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation. "If the caribou has encountered us before, sometimes that's all it needs to turn around and turn the other way.

"If the caribou doesn't run, then we will try to find a safe place to pull over near it. If that doesn't work, we will slowly escalate. We will honk the horn, then if we have to we will get out of the vehicle and we will use herding techniques to try to herd them in a safe direction,"

Since the patrol began in 2012, only five caribou have been killed on the highway.

"Back in the '90s, there was a two-year period during which over 30 caribou were hit on this highway," she said. 

Human and industrial activity

The main threat to caribou, she said, is the destruction of their habitat by human activity and industrial development.

"This road is a good example of how the land is being changed from what the caribou would normally use," Leonard said. "It crosses through their migration. It's an extra disturbance they have to get through."

A sign warns drivers about the presence of caribou near the hamlet of Grande Cache. (Geneviève Tardiff)

Laura Finnegan is the lead researcher of the caribou program with fRI Research, a non-profit that works in partnership with the government of Alberta to protect caribou herds. 

She said the main threat to caribou in the province is land disturbance such as clear cuts, seismic lines and oil rigs, which allow wolves to attack caribou more easily. 

"Caribou tend to use areas that are further away from disturbances," she said. "And that's because disturbances have lots of young forests in them. That's the type of forest that deer, moose and elk like. Predators like wolves, bears and cougars tend to hang out in areas where there are more deer, moose and elk. So caribou are at a greater risk of dying when then are closer to those disturbances."

'A ghost town'

To protect the caribou, the provincial government created an intensive wolf culling program. 

Since 2005, the government has killed about 1,500 wolves, using aerial gunners in helicopters, as well as strychnine poison.

"The results of the wolf management, in almost all cases, have arrested the population decline of caribou instantly," said Dave Hervieux, provincial caribou management co-ordinator. "So caribou populations that were declining and would be gone by now are still here, and have been stable or increasing over that period."

Trapper Darcy Handy says many animals are dying as they eat the poison left out for the wolves. (Geneviève Tardiff)

Darcy Handy has been trapping in the area for 20 years, and said that the government's strategy has devastating consequences on the region's ecosystem. 

All kinds of animals are dying as they eat the poison left out for the wolves, he said

"We've had a road kill deer here, a moose, there is a moose head and a bunch of other stuff here. It's been here a month and nothing has touched it yet. It means that most of the scavengers are dead. There are no ravens here, no coyotes here."

"We've found dead hawks, we've found dead coyotes, we've found numerous animals that were victims of poison. And it never stops. It's like we are in a ghost town here."

Independent biologist Bob Stewart says the provincial government’s wolves culling program has unpredictable consequences on the ecosystem. (Geneviève Tardiff)

Bob Stewart, an independent biologist, also opposes the government's wolves culling program, which he said has unpredictable consequences on the ecosystem.

"You are going in there and playing god with nature," he said. "You don't know what the consequences are of removing wolves out of an ecosystem and letting the rest of nature respond to that. We take a guess and then we watch.

"It is a very intrusive and arrogant approach for biologists to take toward nature."

While the caribou patrol has been able to reduce the number of caribou killed on roads, Leonard warns the government's approach isn't sustainable. 

"They are band-aid solutions," she said. "Nobody is looking at the bigger picture. That's when the government needs to come in and step up. It might involve more regulation on industry, which nobody is going to like. But in the long run, it will allow both caribou and industry to thrive here."