Caribou 'lifeboat' recovery pen considered for oilsands region

Penning wild caribou in the oilsands region is a recovery option for the species that should be considered, says a federal document that echoes a recent industry-funded study.

Industry on board to fund 1,500 sq km pen to keep predators out, help species recover

A wild caribou is seen in wetlands in Kenai, Alaska in this file photo. Last Friday, the federal government quietly released its final wild caribou protection plan, which suggests fencing off areas to keep predators away. (M. Scott Moon/Peninsula Clarion/AP Photo)

Penning wild caribou in the oilsands region is a recovery option for the species that should be considered, says a federal document that echoes a recent industry-funded study.

The federal caribou strategy released last week says "indirect predator management (e.g. penning of boreal caribou)" should be given high priority to prevent the highly endangered herds from vanishing.

The idea follows a study released in July by the Oilsands Leadership Initiative that recommended fencing off at least 1,500 square kilometres to protect caribou from predators such as wolves.

A large fenced predator exclosure "has potential benefits and should be considered for implementation as part of an integrated boreal caribou management program in northeast Alberta," the study said.

It concluded the idea was feasible and 43 technical experts met last May to flesh out how it might be implemented.

They decided an area of at least 1,500 square kilometres would be fenced off for at least 40 years and populated by about 120 to 150 caribou. Wolves and deer would be kept out of the area to minimize predation and competition.

The experts concluded the fenced-off area would become a "lifeboat" for Alberta's caribou herds and could provide surplus calves to herds struggling to survive in the face of continued industrial development.

They added the caribou pen would have to be part of an integrated strategy for saving the herds, some of which are declining so rapidly they are expected to disappear within 20 years.

"This ... group has spearheaded the idea from just a concept into something that's much more concrete," said Stan Boutin, a leading authority on woodland caribou, who was at the May meeting.

"The government was reticent to start with. They've come a long ways."

Oilsands industry would pay

Vincent Saubestre, head of the industry group, said the proposal is one of several management options being studied by oilsands developers. It has now been sent to a larger group of energy companies to develop a possible location and cost for the pen.

"There is some enthusiasm in terms of getting the report to the next stage," he said.

The province has been involved in the proposal and is considering it, Saubestre said.

Boutin, who is based at the University of Alberta, said the idea of penning wild animals to preserve them is "a pretty big conceptual shift." But in the face of governments that seem unwilling to limit any of the energy development that's destroying caribou habitat, it's a shift that Boutin said he has come to support.

"I'm surprised at myself, but I'm as excited as hell about the whole option," he said.

"I was pretty despondent about a year ago. I did not see any solution to this whole challenge with the social pressures, the economic pressures that were coming to bear in Alberta.

"I thought about this big fenced area and thought, 'Why the hell not?' In some ways, this fence solves many problems. It could work for the caribou."

The cost would be borne by industry and the fence would be managed by a third party, said last summer's report. It said members were divided on whether oilsands mining should be allowed within the penned area.

The report acknowledged the idea would draw criticism.

"There are definitely challenges and risks," it said. "Social licence to operate could be a show stopper."

First Nations were not consulted, said the report.

Initial draft watered down

Reaction to Ottawa's caribou recovery plan has been mixed. Some praise the plan's commitment to habitat restoration. Others say it gives industry and government years to decide how the plan will operate on specific caribou ranges to keep the herds from disappearing.

Boutin said the final draft released late Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend is, if anything, weaker than a draft proposed last spring.

"It is definitely 'watered down' from the initial draft." Boutin points out the plan doesn't allow for industry development to be stopped if a caribou range is less than 65 per cent intact. All that's required for development to proceed is a "vague plan" which could take decades to implement.

The recovery plan also includes "predator management," which means shooting wolves.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has estimated that thousands of wolves could be shot to keep caribou alive in the oilsands region.