Woodland caribou northwest of Edmonton are in immediate danger of disappearing and, according to environmentalists, the Alberta government is signing a death warrant by refusing to protect critical habitat.
With the imminent loss of the 80-member Little Smoky herd, the government has agreed to follow the recommendation of the Alberta Caribou Committee by drawing a map of intact caribou habitat to protect. But environmentalists say the map, drawn by industry, is incomplete as it excludes large tracts of intact pine forest.
“The Alberta caribou committee says ‘That map is not accurate, your process is wrong, you have to make a new map,’” says Helene Walsh, boreal campaign director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. But the province is using the “faulty map” to approve a 20-year logging plan in the intact pine forest in the Little Smoky, Walsh adds.
Eventually, the Little Smoky herd will be protected under the federal Species at Risk Act – woodland caribou are considered threatened – but, according to Walsh, it’s not soon enough for the herd that has been in steady decline for decades. It could take more than one year to finish the aboriginal outreach needed to finalize the recovery plan.
“Industry and government realize that pretty soon they’re going to have to do something meaningful and it wouldn’t surprise me if they are letting industry get their last licks at this crucial range,” Walsh says.
Dave Ealey, of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, acknowledges that the map is deficient and says there needs to be “further refinements.” But he wants to keep industry engaged in the process.
“We need a model we can use with all parties so they can play a part in restoration,” he says. “I can sense the frustration and I appreciate the concern. But we want to get this right. It’s a very complex process, we have a lot of things to do.”
Ealey defends the logging of the intact pine areas as pine beetle control. “If we lose it to pine beetle we won’t have habitat anyway,” he says.
However, according to Walsh, studies of B.C. caribou show that in the short-term, caribou benefit from pine beetles because the dead trees allow more light to reach the forest floor, encouraging lichen growth, one of caribou’s primary food sources.
In the meantime, more than 300 wolves attracted to the young forest created by logging, have been culled in order to protect the caribou. Environmentalists originally accepted the need for the wolf cull but insisted it happens in conjunction with habitat protection. “All they’re doing is wolf control,” Walsh says. “It is disturbing to think, despite all the recommendations that habitat needs to be protected, it is business as usual more or less.”
Erik Kok from the woodlands department of Foothills Forest Products, one of the companies logging in the area, says his company has already made concessions for caribou, citing 450-square km that is not being logged. (To put that size in perspective, Waterton, the smallest of the Rocky Mountain parks, is 505-square km). “I guess the question is: What is enough?” Kok says. “There are people who would like to see the entire eastern slopes of the Rockies, from Waterton all the way up to Peace River, in a huge park with no industrial development.”
He defends the map, which he says was drawn up by third-party scientists in conjunction with government and industry. “You’ll never get agreement from everyone but I think there is enough agreement between government and industry that this guy (who drew the map) has some credibility,” he says.
The areas identified in the map as intact will be protected from further development, but that isn’t enough for Walsh, who has seen previous recovery strategies shelved by the Alberta government.
“It’s very clear the industrial footprint already exceeds what caribou can tolerate so it makes no sense to allow more industrial development,” she says. “As a first step, they shouldn’t be allowing any more development in that area until we get proper maps.”
Caribou herds around the world are in steady decline. The North Banff caribou herd was decimated in April, when four of the five remaining members were killed by an avalanche.