Perhaps more than any other animal, the caribou is a symbol of Canada par excellence. The preferred home of this elusive ungulate is the vast boreal forest that covers one-third of our nation like a warm blanket. It was such an important source of food, clothing and tools for our northern ancestors in Eurasia that it is largely credited with allowing First Nations people to populate North America (from Siberia via the Bering Land Bridge) more than 10,000 years ago. And yes, that’s a caribou (not a moose) that has adorned the Canadian quarter since 1937.
Despite its ecological importance and symbolic value, the woodland caribou, perhaps more so even than the grizzly bear, is the poster child for the abject failure of the Alberta government’s species-at-risk recovery efforts. And if things continue as they have for the last three decades, the only place they will survive in Alberta is among the loose change in your pocket.
There’s been some confusion lately about the fate and future of our glorious, if besieged, caribou. A recent Edmonton Journal article claimed that the “multi-stakeholder” Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC) had refused to recommend that caribou be up-listed from “threatened” to “endangered,” despite the fact the latest scientific information clearly supports the added protection the more ominous moniker might bring.
However, the Journal was forced to print a “correction” to the article, stating that the article was mistaken in this regard, and that a ministry spokesman said that “the minister has not received any recommendation on the species.” This statement was confirmed to me by the very same spokesman in question, Sustainable Resource Development’s Dave Ealey, who said in a recent email that “the ESCC is still deliberating on their review of status for caribou. No recommendation has been forwarded.” And yet rumours abound that the ESCC sent its recommendation to the government months ago.
What the recommendation is — or will be — is unknown, but according to Stan Boutin, a caribou expert with the University of Alberta who has been monitoring the species’ decline for almost 20 years, the endangered listing is more than warranted. “The scientific data are very strong for a status move to endangered,” he told me last week. “It should be a slam dunk for [the ESCC] if they were basing it on the science.”
But as anyone who has followed the long, sad story of caribou management in this province knows, scientific evidence is rarely the deciding factor when it comes to natural resource policy. In fact, it’s been abundantly clear that Alberta’s caribou population has been declining for more than a century. Provincial biologists called for protection as early as 1926, when they realized that numbers had gone from “abundant” to “not plentiful.” When Alberta’s so-called Progressive Conservatives took over in 1971 (back when the name actually seemed to approximate the party’s political philosophy), there were only about 5,000 animals in the wild. Since then, the government has developed a series of restoration, conservation and recovery plans — in 1986, 1993, 1996 and 2004 — that have recommended that caribou be protected from unsustainable rates of industrial activity (namely forestry as well as oil and gas exploration and extraction).
But apart from asking industry to voluntarily adopt “best practices,” and shooting wolves from helicopters and poisoning them on the ground, the government has done little to nothing to protect caribou habitat or reverse population declines. Meanwhile, several of our caribou populations began to crash; one, in Banff National Park, recently disappeared altogether. By the time caribou were finally listed as a threatened species in 2001, two decades after provincial biologists first proposed the idea, there were an estimated 4,000 animals at most. Today the number is less than 3,000, and 10 of 13 studied populations — a whopping 70 per cent of the total population — show no sign of halting their slide toward extinction. Even Jasper National Park’s caribou population is withering away, like a shallow pond in the hot sun.
There’s no reason for inaction, says Boutin. “We have cracker-ass data. We know what causes these declines, and how humans are involved. We know how to change the situation. But we got to a point three or four years ago when everything ground to a halt.” He says that industry and government began to question the science — a classic delay tactic perfected by the tobacco industry — and the government refuses to make the hard decisions to limit industrial development and protect core caribou habitat.
While Boutin says there are always leaders in government and industry who champion causes like caribou recovery, government leadership has been sorely lacking and industry trade groups like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Alberta Forest Products Association tend to settle on “the lowest common denominator,” which is a euphemism for opposing environmental regulations that might hurt the profitability of their less enlightened members. If Alberta’s recently adopted wetlands policy is any indication, it’s obstructionists like these that may be trying to gut the forthcoming recommendation of the ESCC.
So as you can see, the problem isn’t wolves, as is so often claimed. The problem is greed. Despite being the wealthiest province in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, we can’t seem to make room for caribou (or grizzly bears or sage grouse) in a province bigger than most of the world’s countries. The reason is simple: Our political decision-makers refuse to acknowledge that we simply cannot pave every valley, mine every mountain, cut every tree and extract every drop of oil without destroying the very things that make this province great: water, wilderness, wildlife.
We must, in the way of conservatives of old, exercise some restraint. It won’t kill us, and in fact it will make Alberta a better place. If the government would only show some leadership, I’m sure the people (and even industry) will follow.