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Canada's Caribou Conservation Crisis

Canada's Caribou Conservation Crisis

The boreal forest region of North America has been impacted by human industrial disturbances like oil production and timber harvesting for decades, gravely influencing wildlife in the area. The boreal forest’s woodland caribou are in severe decline in Alberta, and are listed by Alberta’s Wildlife Act as a threatened species. Caribou habitat covers nearly one-quarter of Alberta, and all of the ranges in the province have been disturbed, according provincial research. To combat this, the Alberta government has implemented a five-year conservation plan to restore 10,000 kilometres of habitat that has been disturbed by installation of seismic lines by the oil industry. Over 16,000 kilometres of these seismic lines have been cut through the boreal forest, obstructing the caribou’s natural habitat and contributing greatly to their decline in Alberta. The province plans to spend over $85 million over the next four years to eliminate these seismic lines and plant trees in their place.

  Image courtesy of WWF Canada.

Image courtesy of WWF Canada.

The controversy

The first draft of this plan was released in 2015, and in December 2017 a second draft was published, garnering a critical response. Environmental groups fear that the plan will fail to meet the requirements of Canada’s Species at Risk Act, and that time is running out for the remaining 15 of 17 caribou herds whose specific conservation plans were not listed in the first draft.

A particularly troublesome point of the draft includes the trial killing of the herd’s predators, predominantly wolves. This is seen by environmental groups as immoral, and the belief is that the emphasis should be placed on habitat conservation and restoration rather than a wolf cull. Environmentalists argue that a wolf cull is simply a short-term plan that “relies heavily on killing wolves, while allowing industry’s footprint to increase” (cbc.ca).

Simultaneously, the inability to find the seemingly-unreachable middle ground between environment and economy prevails. Alberta’s caribou and their habitats are important environmental assets that require immediate attention, while Alberta’s oil industry plays a key role in the provincial and federal economy, and the mitigation of industrial impact has potential to lead to province-wide job losses.

Attempting to strike a balance

There is hope, however, in an effort towards avoiding job losses while simultaneously conserving the land and its caribou residents. In addition to the government’s efforts as stated in the draft plan itself, companies like Cenovus Energy are launching projects to restore caribou habitats near their sites. Cenovus' ten-year project was launched in 2016, and “the Alberta-based oil company has committed $32 million to completing this project by 2026” (cbc.ca). The company is starting by restoring caribou habitat near Cold Lake, and plans to block the man-made pathways from seismic lines by planting more than four million conifer tree seedlings in the area. Companies like Cenovus believe that finding the balance between environment and economy is an attainable goal, and they aim to follow Alberta’s draft plan by restoring caribou habitats and restricting the 16,000 kilometre lines, working towards the province’s goal of achieving 65 percent undisturbed caribou habitat in Alberta.

The federal government’s involvement has also included discussion with the oil industry, First Nations people, and environmental groups to take a “holistic” approach to caribou conservation. The province also hosted five public information sessions across Alberta in early 2018 in an effort to include citizens in the conversation.

First Nations groups like that of Cold Lake are “cautiously optimistic” about the restoration of their traditional land. Government intervention and management of their territory has impacted their ways of life dramatically - the Cold Lake caribou herd that the Dene and Cree hunters previously relied on has dwindled and the government has taken over the land in the area. In efforts to remedy this past mismanagement, the group stands behind the most recent draft of the plan in hopes that it will succeed in protecting the natural world they so deeply connect with.

Striving for solutions

While the perfect plan may not exist, the province is working with the aforementioned groups to find a solution which meets the needs of all involved. Alberta is extremely dependent upon its industries, but one must also consider the importance of the province’s natural resources and wildlife. When the prioritization of economy begins to impact the environment, action must be taken to address the plight in a way that preserves both.

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