Alberta considering plan to build caribou-rearing facility

The Alberta government is considering building a caribou rearing facility near Grande Cache, east of the Rockies, as part of a plan to protect the endangered animals.

Construction of facility could start this winter in Little Smoky caribou range, document says

Alberta is considering the construction of a caribou rearing facility, where calves would be protected from predators. (The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government is considering building a caribou-rearing facility near Grande Cache, east of the Rockies, as part of a plan to protect the endangered animals. 

The construction of the 48-square-kilometre facility is scheduled to begin this winter, according to a document obtained by CBC News. It will be part of a five-year pilot project. 

The province outlines how the facility would contribute to conservation efforts in a memo prepared in May for the federal government by John Conrad, assistant deputy minister at Alberta Environment and Parks.

"The predator-free facility will contribute to the conservation of this caribou population, together with ongoing habitat management and wolf population reductions," reads the document.

"Caribou will be released periodically from the facility to augment the overall caribou population."

Environment and Park Minister Jason Nixon wasn't available to comment on the facility on Thursday, but his ministry did confirm that it was one of several options being considered.  

Caribou are defined as threatened by Canada's Species At Risk Act.

In Alberta, caribou herds have been negatively impacted by the extraction of oil and gas as well as logging activities, which have both led to habitat destruction. 

The province views the Little Smoky caribou-rearing facility as a potential tool to help the population recover. 

"The rearing facility will contribute to caribou conservation by increasing adult caribou survival and augmenting calf survival," said the memo. 

The project would cost $8.9 million, according to the document. 

It would be built in the Municipal District of Greenview, which is located within the Little Smoky caribou range. The Municipal District of Greenview is approximately 340 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Only five per cent of the Little Smoky range is considered undisturbed habitat, according to the province. The goal is to increase that proportion to 65 per cent. 

The government's focus should be on recovering the lost caribou habitat, said Carolyn Campbell, Alberta Wilderness Association spokesperson.

The rearing facility may not have the desired outcome in the long-term, she said. 

"That can be an expensive distraction and can really encourage ongoing irresponsible land use because you're propping up populations very artificially," Campbell said. 

"We need interim habitat protection so that everybody can focus on achieving self-sustaining, wild caribou and healthy forests, rather than caribou that are in increasingly fragmented forests."

The possibility of building and operating a rearing facility as a pilot project was included in the former NDP government's 2017 draft plan on how it envisioned improving caribou conservation. 

Discussions around the plan were stalled over economic concerns, and the province has yet to finalize it.

The UCP government is now moving on to phase two of the plan, which includes engagement and consultations on how to protect the 15 ranges where caribou herds roam. 

It will include consultations on the proposed rearing facility, confirmed Alberta Environment. 

The province is creating three task forces to advise on how to balance protection with industrial activity.

They are expected to begin their work this fall.