Federal, Alberta governments sign caribou conservation plan amid protection order pressure

Facing increased pressure to protect woodland caribou herds, the federal and Alberta governments have signed a conservation agreement aimed at restoring dwindling herds in the province.

Alberta avoided legal order by signing agreement, federal environment minister says

Caribou have been an important animal in the lives of people in the Boreal forest and the tundra, who have long relied on their meat and fur. Like the other three species highlighted, they are 'politically' very difficult to protect because they live in more than one jurisdiction, Fenton said. (Mike Bedell/CPAWS/Associated Press) (The Associated Press)

Facing increased pressure to protect woodland caribou herds, the federal and Alberta governments have signed a conservation agreement aimed at restoring dwindling herds in the province.

The joint agreement, announced Friday, commits to creating self-sustaining herds across the province within a century. 

Alberta avoided a legal order by signing the agreement, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in a statement.

"The Government of Canada recognizes that at this time, this collaborative approach — as opposed to an order under the Species at Risk Act — represents the best path forward for the conservation and recovery of boreal and southern mountain caribou in Alberta," Wilkinson said. 

"The Government of Alberta, along with Indigenous peoples, industry stakeholders, and many others have taken steps to support caribou recovery, and I believe this agreement will help fulfil obligations to future generations of Canadians." 

Due to habitat loss and predation, caribou populations in Alberta have been in steep decline for decades.

Both the southern mountain caribou and boreal caribou are listed as threatened under Alberta's Wildlife Act and the federal Species at Risk Act. 

Only 15 herds remain and some are on the brink of collapse. 

The new agreement says critical habitat recovery will require a "landscape-level approach" and take decades to achieve.

The agreement includes a commitment to land-use planning that supports caribou habitat, restoring habitat by planting trees in historical seismic lines and managing wolves and other predators.

It also includes a commitment to monitoring population trends and to developing "mechanisms for approving oil and gas and forestry projects that align with caribou recovery outcomes."

The federal and provincial governments have committed to providing the funding necessary to execute the strategy.  An estimated cost was not included in the agreement but Alberta plans to develop a stable funding model by 2021. 

The agreement commits to deliver, within five years, range plans for herds including Little Smoky, A La Peche, Redrock/Prairie Creek, Narraway, Chinchaga, Cold Lake, and a herd on the east side of the Athabasca River. 

The agreement commits to delivering management plans for all woodland caribou populations within 10 years. It pledges to achieve "naturally self-sustaining status" for all woodland caribou local populations in Alberta in 50 to 100 years or sooner.

Range plans will be developed so that ranges have 65 per cent undisturbed habitat, a threshold that aligns with a benchmark previously established by the federal government.

'Avoids any legal action'

The agreement acknowledges the province's ongoing work to recover caribou and avoids any legal action against Alberta, provincial Environment Minister Jason Nixon said in a statement.

"This agreement with the federal government is consistent with Alberta's commitment to end decades of uncertainty around caribou recovery and land use," Nixon said.

"Our negotiated Section 11 agreement puts Alberta's needs first, instead of having an order imposed on us under the Species at Risk Act." 

    In January 2019, the Alberta government created three sub-regional task force teams to help the threatened caribou population recover.

    The task forces were charged with drafting plans for the 15 ranges and that work continues, Nixon said.

    Friday's announcement comes amid increasing calls to protect Alberta's caribou. 

    In January of 2019, Ecojustice -- acting on behalf of the David Suzuki Foundation, the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Mikisew and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations -- filed an application in Federal Court to force then-environment minister Catherine McKenna to place five caribou herds in northeastern Alberta under an emergency protection order.

    The application relied on a provision in the federal Species At Risk Act that compels the minister to protect critical habitat for endangered species, and two federal studies which determined that critical habitat for boreal caribou was not being adequately protected in any province. 

    In a statement to CBC News on Friday, Ecojustice said it discontinued its case this week after it was informed of the new protection plan.

    The threat of federal enforcement appears to have been a "powerful motivator" in making the agreement happen, said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA).

    "I am reinforced in the belief that the Species at Risk Act is our strongest law in Canada for valued and very threatened wildlife species," Campbell said. 

    "It's a good thing it exists because it helps get this agreement across the finish line.The agreement isn't perfect, but it is better than nothing so it's important that it was finalized." 

    'Concerning escape hatches'

    Campbell said the agreement provides some valuable protections for populations.

    She applauded the clear timelines, the commitment to a stable funding model, a commitment to annual public reporting of population numbers and the range-protection thresholds.

    "For the first time, the Alberta government has officially agreed with the federal recovery strategy for caribou in terms of habitat concepts," she said. 

    "We've not seen the Alberta government state that before."

    But she said conservationists are concerned about some backsliding on the conservation of current habitats.

    A previous draft of the document committed to reduced harvesting of conifer forests currently relied on by caribou, she said.

    The AWA would have liked the agreement to have more regulatory power to hold Alberta accountable for missed deadlines.

    "Right now, we don't see that and we've seen time and again the Alberta government miss deadlines," Campbell said. 

    "There is some good potential here but there are also some concerning escape hatches."


    Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.