Lukewarm response to Alberta's draft caribou range plan

Alberta's latest caribou range plan draft is too much talk and not enough action, critics say.

'This seems to us like another plan to plan,' environmental group says about province's latest draft plan

The nine provinces and territories with caribou populations are under a federal mandate to protect the animals. (Submitted by Luc Gervais)

While the province drafts plans to save its dwindling caribou herds, time is running out for the threatened species, environmentalists say.

The provincial government released its second draft of the federally mandated plan on Tuesday. An earlier draft, published in 2015, focused on two caribou ranges in northwest Alberta.

Alberta's draft provincial woodland caribou range plan names key proposals to restore habitat. The 212-page document does not include specific strategies for each of the province's 15 remaining herds.

A completed plan is expected in March, nearly half a year past a deadline set by the federal government in 2012.

"This seems to us like another plan to plan," said Tara Russell, a spokesperson for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in Alberta.

The national charity advocates for wildlife conservation in Canada. 

"It's absolutely frustrating because our caribou populations continue to decline and that is largely caused by habitat disturbance," Russell said.

"While everyone sits around and thinks about what we could do, what we actually need is real action on the ground to restore and recover habitat."

Caribou habitat covers nearly one-quarter of Alberta, according to research by the province. All of the ranges have been disturbed.

The least affected range, Yates, is 55 per cent disturbed. Little Smoky is 96 per cent disturbed — almost entirely by humans.

Throughout the province, humans are responsible for most of the damage to caribou habitats.

"Discussions with the industrial sector end up revolving around a discussion of balancing the environment and economics," Russell said. 

"We would argue that we tipped to that point ages ago."

Getting ahead of the provincial plan

Michael Cody, a land and biodiversity specialist with Cenovus Energy, said he believes a balance between economy and environment is possible.

"In the future, we need to move to a place where that's sort of an outdated dichotomy where we say it's either the environment or the economy," Cody said in a phone interview on Wednesday. 

Last year, Cenovus launched a voluntary 10-year project to restore caribou habitat near its sites. Despite recently announcing staff cuts, the Alberta-based oil company has committed $32 million to completing its project by 2026.

Cenovus' 2018 capital budget is between $1.5 billion and $1.7 billion.

"Through creativity and innovation and responsible development we can have both. That's what we want to demonstrate with our work," Cody said.

The company is restoring habitat near Cold Lake, a range crisscrossed with access roads and seismic lines. 

Predators such as wolves travel quickly along the cleared corridors, cutting into woodland caribou territory.

Cenovus plans to block the man-made pathways by planting more than four million coniferous tree seedlings by 2026.

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the next-best time was now," Cody said. 

Predators such as wolves use seismic lines to cut into caribou territory. (Cenovus)

In its draft report, the province identifies seismic lines, which are used by energy companies to collect geological data, as a significant disturbance to caribou habitat.

Seven of Alberta's caribou ranges, including Cold Lake, are more than 80 per cent disturbed by seismic lines.

Restoring and restricting the lines are two strategies listed in Alberta's draft plan. Through its final plan, the province aims to achieve 65 per cent undisturbed caribou habitat in Alberta. 

​"We believe that we're ahead of the curve," Cody said about Cenovus.

The federal government can file for an environmental protection order if the provincial caribou range plan falls short of its targets.

An emergency order could freeze all development known to harm caribou, something Cody said energy companies like Cenovus want to avoid.

"Some of that risk — both the regulatory risk and the PR risk — underpin our strategy with respect to why we would want to invest in responding to the issue and in restoration," he said.

Cautious optimism

The Cold Lake First Nation is cautiously optimistic about the restoration of its traditional land, Chief Bernice Martial wrote in a statement to CBC News on Wednesday.

Dene and Cree hunters used to rely on the Cold Lake caribou, until the herd dwindled and government took over swaths of its habitat.

"These problems are the result of decades of mismanagement of our traditional territory by all levels of government," Martial said.

The draft released on Tuesday is a step in the right direction, she added.

"Plans are only as good as the actions that follow from them," Martial said. "These actions will be difficult and will test our collective resolve to protect the natural world which supports all of us.

"Cold Lake First Nations stands with the caribou; we stand with our elders who have derived a livelihood from this resource for thousands of years and we stand with the future generations whose right to cultural heritage has been jeopardized." 

A grid of processing plants and oil wells cuts into the forest about 35 kilometres northwest of Cold Lake. (Google Maps)

To complete its range plan, the Alberta government will spend the next three months consulting with Indigenous groups and other stakeholders.

The province will also host five public information sessions in February and March:

  • Feb. 20, 2018 – Whitecourt
  • Feb. 22, 2018 – Edmonton
  • Feb. 27, 2018 – Cold Lake
  • March 1, 2018 – Fort McMurray
  • March 6, 2018 – High Level