Scientists are usually loathe to wade into controversial policy debates. Biologists, in particular, seem to prefer to let their data and research speak for itself, and let the rest of us argue about what it all means, and make choices about what, if anything, we should do with it.
So I was a little surprised when I heard one very good biologist support the oil industry’s newest idea for saving Alberta’s caribou from its supposedly sustainable oilsands development. Rather than stay out of what little remains of the critical habitat the caribou need to survive, which is really a rather small part of the entire oilsands region, the oil industry would rather carry on with its unsustainable plundering and incarcerate these wild relics of the Pleistocene in a relatively small (by caribou standards) fenced area, where predators such as wolves and bears would be eliminated. Voila! A caribou zoo.
Stan Boutin, a University of Alberta biologist who has diligently studied Alberta’s boreal caribou herds for the last 20 years or so, once opposed the radical notion of penning wild caribou to save them, but he has resigned himself to the idea that we really have no other choice.
It’s worth remembering that Alberta’s boreal caribou herds are listed as “threatened” under federal (2003) legislation and “endangered” in Alberta (1986). Indeed, we’ve known boreal caribou were in deep trouble as far back as 1979, when provincial biologist Mike Bloomfield, who was the caribou management co-ordinator at the time, said, “We have no other choice [but to protect caribou]. Continued hunting and unrestricted development in caribou range could result in the disappearance of our resident populations.”
Well, apparently the government did have other choices, because, as Boutin points out, little has been done to protect them and their habitat since. Instead, we’ve simply leased out most of their habitat to logging and oil companies eager to turn it into toilet paper, bitumen crude, and big profits. As Boutin explained to the media, it’s pretty clear that “society” is not willing to protect adequate amounts of caribou habitat, which is why he has resigned himself to the fact that imprisoning them in a 1,500-square-kilometre enclosure devoid of predators is their best chance for survival.
On the face of it, Boutin’s reasoning is relatively sound. As the tragic tale of Alberta’s caribou (not to mention grizzly bears and sage grouse) attest, history does seem to indicate that neither the federal nor the provincial government are really committed to protecting critical habitat for threatened species. And Albertans haven’t exactly been busting down the doors of Parliament or the legislature to convince politicians otherwise. But since when did history trump biology?
Although biologists have been telling us we need to protect caribou habitat for more than 30 years, and despite the fact caribou are, according to Alberta law, an endangered species deserving our collective protection, I find it shocking that all of a sudden, biologists are telling us that the only choice left is to zoo the caribou. I would expect that opinion from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers or Peter Kent, our disingenuous federal environment minister. But biologists? Really?
Such thinking is extraordinarily short-sighted. Supporting industry’s proposed caribou zoo sets a dangerous precedent that could fundamentally alter the way industrial societies perceive and protect species at risk. At the heart of all the laws and policies to protect species at risk in Canada and the United States is the understanding that habitat destruction and alteration is the cause of most population declines, and that restoring and protecting habitat is the Number 1 rule to reverse it. There are exceptions, of course: the Peregrine falcon and the bald eagle come to mind, which were almost wiped out because of our generous use of DDT. But the problem for most species is our destruction of their habitat, and caribou are no exception. The solution is to stop destroying all the habitat.
After hearing Boutin on CBC’s As It Happens radio program, Ian Huggett, a conservation biologist from Chelsea, Quebec, challenged the assumptions underlying Boutin’s conclusion. Boutin, he wrote in an email to CBC, “bases his arguments on the assumption that society places greater emphasis on resource exploitation than on wildlife conservation. I challenge this assumption. Rather than… forcing wildlife to adjust to our ever-expanding industrial enterprise, we should take stock of our northern developments’ profound impacts on existing species which call Alberta’s landscape home. Once biologists — advocates for the sanctity of the natural world — adopt a world view that the rest of animate creation comes second to human exploitation, commerce and greed, we have failed our profession.”
With all due respect to Dr. Boutin, I have to agree with Mr. Huggett.
To legitimize the incarceration of species at risk rather than protect the habitat on which they depend is to open a Pandora’s box that will turn what remains of wild nature into a diminished shadow of its former self, and allow the accelerated degradation of the ecosystems on which we all depend. It goes against everything we know about the principles of conservation biology and the inherent and practical value of functioning ecosystems.
To support this insane idea is to allow the oil industry to redefine what it means to be a responsible steward of this beautiful planet we share with billions of other species. If biologists are going to throw off their veil of objectivity and champion species recovery strategies based on untested assumptions about what “society” wants, let them err on the side of good science, healthy ecosystems and wild nature, not pie-in-the-sky optimism and ruthless pragmatism.
Instead, we could all speak truth to power (and the louder the better): corporate interests and governments beholden to them are ignoring or dismantling the laws that protect us and our environment, and we will not stand for it.
Indeed, one could argue that we have no other choice.
Jeff Gailus’s new book, Little Black Lies: Corporate and Political Spin in the Global War for Oil, is finally available online and at bookstores near you.