Friday, April 20, 2012

Alberta's Sad History of Caribou "Management"

A chronology of events, courtesy of the Alberta Wilderness Society:

January 2012

Federal Environment Minister Kent makes a decision not to recommend emergency protection of critical habitat for threatened caribou herds in northeastern Alberta.

November 2011

Parks Canada releases a proposed Conservation Strategy for Southern Mountain Caribou in Canada's National Parks. AWA in commenting on the strategy is supportive of habitat-related measures: reducing human, deer and elk access into caribou ranges, thereby reducing wolf access. AWA will only support translocation, and limited use of cow-calf penning or predator management, if there is a clear priority placed on habitat-related actions.

August 2011

Government of Canada releases a years-overdue proposed boreal woodland caribou recovery strategy. "The long-term recovery goal for boreal caribou is to achieve self-sustaining local populations throughout their distribution in Canada to the extent possible". This is weaker than the 2007 federal recovery goal supported by AWA, which was: "Boreal caribou are conserved, and recovered to self-sustaining levels, throughout their current distribution (extent of occurrence) in Canada."

For herds at greatest risk of extinction because of habitat loss, including seven of Alberta's 12 herds, the strategy proposes that undisturbed critical habitat may decrease to a mere 5% as long as jurisdictions provide a plan to stabilize populations "through the use of mortality and habitat management tools." AWA immediately strongly criticizes this policy, stating "The war on wolves goes national."

For herds that are not self-sustaining but are important to maintain connectivity across Canada, which includes Alberta's remaining 5 herds, the strategy proposes that undisturbed habitat must increase over 50 years to provide 65% undisturbed habitat in the herd's total range. This 65% habitat target, if reached, will only provide a 60% chance a population will be self-sustaining.

Federal Environment Minister Kent is quoted in a Canadian Press article August 26, 2011 that the plan means killing wolves. "Predator control has been chosen," he said. "That bothers me a great deal. It certainly disturbs me that 100 wolves have to be killed to protect four caribou calves."

July 28, 2011

The federal court decision is announced in response to the court case undertaken by AWA, Pembina Institute and Alberta Ecojustice, seeking a court order to force the federal Environment Minister, Peter Kent, to recommend emergency protection of critical habitat for threatened caribou herds in northeastern Alberta. The Federal Court overturns the minister's decision not to recommend emergency protection for caribou.

"It is not immediately apparent how, given the foregoing facts, the Minister reasonably could have concluded that there are no imminent threats to the national recovery of boreal caribou," Justice Crampton writes in his decision.

July 2011

Major new science and policy briefing note issued by the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel: Keeping woodland caribou in the boreal forest: Big challenge, immense opportunity. The report is clear: "To conserve woodland caribou means dispensing with business as usual, which has demonstrably and repeatedly failed to meet caribou conservation needs."

The report emphasizes that recovery is achievable: "Although the challenge of conserving caribou may look daunting, science indicates that both caribou conservation and resource exploitation are possible-if society makes room for caribou in the boreal forest in its plans and desires for the future."

But the challenges are substantial, including:

* "The consequences of today's actions, or inaction, will reverberate for at least a half-century."

* "Caribou need old forests, typically more than 50 years old, and they range over large areas, often thousands of square kilometres. Managing the boreal forest must occur at commensurate scales in time and space. Planning must consider the long term, in accordance with the long-term consequences of present-day human activities in the boreal forest."

* "The viability of a caribou population declines in the midst of disturbances to habitat, whether natural or human-caused. Such disturbances need to be considered cumulatively. Current understanding suggests that disturbed areas must not encompass more than about one-third of a population's range if the population is to persist"

* "Ensuring a future for woodland caribou populations must include a margin for error, in recognition of many uncertainties and the need to keep management options open. Protected areas provide insurance against unfavourable outcomes as well as a template for evaluating the effectiveness of management prescriptions beyond protected areas' boundaries."

In an accompanying letter to the Alberta government, the panel writes: "Now more than ever, urgent action is required by the Alberta government to sustain caribou populations throughout the province. We appreciate that the Land Use Framework provides new tools for establishing new thresholds for development and opportunities for conservation. We therefore recommend that your government act now to protect key habitats and implement a comprehensive caribou protection plan to ensure that this iconic species is sustained for future generations."

June 2011

AWA, with Pembina Institute and Alberta Ecojustice, take the federal Environment Minister, Peter Kent, to court, seeking a court order to force the minister to recommend emergency protection of critical habitat for threatened caribou herds in northeastern Alberta. The groups point out that the Government of Alberta's reluctance to introduce any meaningful caribou
habitat protection through its recent Lower Athabasca Regional Plan makes immediate federal action even more critical.

"Alberta's chronic failure to protect its caribou means the federal government must step in with emergency protections before it's too late," says Cliff Wallis, AWA vice-president in a news release. "If they continue to ignore Alberta's reckless behaviour, the feds will be complicit in the
disappearance of these majestic animals from Alberta's forests."

A June 2011 report by Global Forest Watch Canada demonstrates clearly that the draft Regional Plan for the Lower Athabasca region will fail to protect caribou habitat. Under the draft Lower Athabasca Integrated Regional, a mere 4 percent of caribou habitat in the region would benefit from new protection. This would add to the meagre 3 percent already protected.


Alberta government admits that it will be ignoring the advice of its own scientists to downgrade caribou from threatened to endangered, despite clear evidence that caribou numbers continue to decline.

The government's Endangered Species Conservation Committee (ESCC) makes recommendations to the minister of Sustainable Resource Development on the status of Alberta wildlife. The ESCC is a 'stakeholder' committee, including representatives from the Alberta Forest Products Association, Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Western Stockgrowers' Association. As a nonexpert committee, they often take scientific advice from their own Scientific Subcommittee. But when the Subcommittee recommends in December 2010 that the plight of woodland caribou was so dire that they should be downgraded from threatened to endangered, their advice is ignored.

The Alberta government refuses to publish the recommendations of the Scientific Subcommittee, and so the reason why the ESCC decided to ignore the advice of its own scientists is unclear. AWA initiates an application under Freedom of Information legislation to see the reports from the ESCC and its scientific subcommittee.


July 2010, the Alberta government publishes the 2010 update of the report, Status of the Woodland Caribou in Alberta. The language in the report makes it very clear that, after 23 years of Alberta's caribou "recovery" process, the picture remains dire for the species.

* "Of the 13 populations with sufficient monitoring data, 10 are demonstrating population decline. The 10 caribou populations documented to be in decline occupy 83% of the total area of current caribou range in Alberta, and constitute the majority of caribou occurring in the province."

* "Approximately 70% of all caribou in Alberta occur in populations that are known to be declining."

* "More provincial caribou populations are now in sustained population decline than was the case when the first edition of this status document was prepared in 2001."

* "Levels of habitat alteration from industrial developments are high on most caribou ranges in the province and projections forecast continued high levels of future industrial activity... Provincial land-use guidelines for industrial activities have not succeeded (as a sole tool) in providing for long-term caribou population and habitat conservation, and guidelines for caribou habitat protection currently are not being applied in all caribou ranges within the province."

One of Jasper National Park's three remaining populations, the Maligne Valley herd, crashes to just four members. The new Management Plan for Jasper National Park does not address this population, despite calls from AWA and other organizations to close the Maligne road to winter use which would offer some protection to the caribou herd.

August 2010

Ecojustice, on behalf of AWA, Pembina Institute and Sierra Club Prairie Chapter, petition federal Minister of the Environment, Jim Prentice, to adopt emergency measures under the federal Species at Risk Act to protect caribou herds in northeastern Alberta. Their letter calls for a halt to further industrial activity in caribou ranges until a recovery plan and habitat protection measures - mandated by species legislation - are in place.

The letter supports a demand made by local First Nations in July, when the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Enoch Cree Nation, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation and Athabascan Chipewyan First Nation demanded that the minister provide emergency protection for herds on their traditional lands.

February 2010

AWA and Alberta conservation groups called for an emergency order from the Federal Environment Minister to enforce habitat protection for the endangered woodland caribou herds in the foothills and tar sands.

December 2009

The draft management plan for Banff National Park recommends investigating reintroduction of caribou into the park.

November 2009

AWA and other provincial conservation groups distribute copies of a provincial government recovery plan for Alberta's endangered woodland caribou. The Action Plan for West-Central Alberta Caribou Recovery authorized ongoing logging and oil and gas development in the caribou home ranges north of Hinton and Grande Cache, despite more than two dozen Alberta
government and science reports, consultations and recovery plans for caribou released since the late 1970s that show industrial impacts on forests and wildlife as the root cause of caribou decline.

April 2009

The remaining four members of Banff's caribou herd are all killed in an avalanche. This becomes the first extirpation of a large mammal in a Canadian National Park in more than a century.

Also in April, an Environment Canada report, Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population in Canada, is published. The report concludes that half of Canada's boreal caribou herds are in decline and could die off unless their habitat is
better protected, and points to logging and energy production as big threats. The Conservative government takes the extraordinary step of distancing itself from the report.

While caribou habitat remains unprotected, another 120 wolves are killed in caribou range between April 2008 and March 2009. Increased numbers of hunting licences are also issued to try to reduce moose numbers in caribou habitat.

May 20, 2008

AWA, along with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Federation of Alberta Naturalists, and the Athabasca Bioregional Society write to Dr. Marco Festa-Bianchet, co-chair of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada's (COSEWIC) Species Specialist Subcommittee - Terrestrial Mammals requesting COSEWIC assess the status of the Little Smoky local
population of woodland caribou. In the letter, the groups submit that the Little Smoky herd is both particularly imperiled relative to the wider boreal population of woodland caribou and both geographically and genetically distinct from the boreal population.


The Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA), an industry group, tells AWA that it no longer supports the recommendations of the Alberta Caribou Committee, of which it is a member. AWA calls for the removal of the AFPA from the ACC on the grounds that it is not acting in good faith. The AFPA had previously agreed not to clear-cut log in caribou habitat areas, even with the advent of a pine beetle outbreak.

February - The federal response to the woodland caribou question - that is, whether or not it must actively protect habitat - as delivered by the NAFTA Commission on Environmental Cooperation, is delayed pending the resolution of spotted owl proceedings. The federal government claims that the spotted owl ruling will affect the outcome of legal actions with respect to woodland caribou.


AWA releases another 9 public statements calling on government and industryto honour their commitments to caribou conservation.

The province implements a wolf-culling program without addressing long-term habitat protection issues. This action contradicts caribou management plans dating back 30 years and the opinions expressed by members of the Alberta Caribou Committee, AWA and the public. Applications for energy development, including improved roads, wells and pipelines, continue without resistance from government officials.

National environmental groups send a petition to the Commission on Environmental Cooperation claiming that the federal government has failed to protect critical habitat for endangered species with specific reference to woodland caribou in Alberta. The CEC is the environmental watchdog of NAFTA and was set in place to ensure that partner nations enforce their own environmental laws (i.e., to minimize trade advantages for countries in violation of domestic environmental laws). CEC rulings are non-binding but politically significant.

By the end of 2006, the provincial government has forced forest companies like Weyerhauser to log forests in critical caribou habitat in order to minimize impacts from recent mountain pine beetle (MPB) attacks. The goal of this strategy is the widespread conversion of older forests, which are susceptible to MPB attack, to plantations of younger trees. The provincial strategy to combat MPB is in direct contradiction to previously established caribou management agreements.


AWA makes more than 7 public announcements, along with other conservation organizations, calling on the government to adhere to its commitment to protect caribou habitat after recent research presented by University of Alberta biologists indicates that provincial land-use guidelines for caribou habitat are being violated by industry.

The province announces the creation of the Alberta Caribou Committee (ACC), which includes the Boreal Caribou Committee (1999), the West Central Caribou Committee (1992), the Provincial Caribou Recovery Team (2001) and other stakeholders. The province says it will further engage First Nations people (who are still exempt from the caribou hunting ban) in caribou management, promote industry best practices for operating on caribou lands, and implement a predator control program. The ACC is expected to produce a management plan by 2007. They announce that the provincial caribou population is 2500 to 4000 individuals.

The province releases the Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan, authored by 13 representatives of the forestry and petroleum industries, provincial and federal government, academia, and community groups. The plan's two recovery goals are to: 1) achieve self-sustaining woodland caribou herds and maintain the distribution of caribou in Alberta and 2) ensure that long-term habitat requirements are met within Alberta's caribou ranges. The Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, David Coutts, adopts the plan with the notable exception of "the recommendation in Section 7.2 relating to a moratorium on further mineral and timber allocations on specific caribou ranges." These "specific caribou ranges" refer to herds "at immediate risk of extirpation or extinction" and the recommendation itself states: "A
moratorium on further mineral and timber resource allocation (sales) should be put in place until a range plan is completed, evaluated, and implemented. It is anticipated that this process will take a maximum of one year from the date of range team formation."

CANFOR announces it will voluntarily defer logging on the Little Smoky Caribou Herd range, which covers one-sixth of their FMA, for two years starting in the winter of 2005/2006.

CANFOR and Suncor announce they will commence an integrated landscape management approach, with the overall goal to minimize their environmental footprints in northwestern Alberta. They also agree to start a "caribou habitat restoration/reforestation project."


Weyerhaeuser announces the cessation of logging activities in 82 000 hectares of forested area in west-central Alberta for the next 5 years based on research they supported. AWA and other environmental groups in the province issue a press release calling on the government to implement a comprehensive, multi-sector approach to caribou management.

Suncor/ConocoPhillips propose the construction of a 101-km-long sour gas pipeline through the home range of the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds. Development to begin in December 2004.


The Alberta Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development forms the Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Team.


The recommendations made in 1996 by the multi-stakeholder Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy Development Committee formed in 1993 have yet to be implemented by senior officials in the provincial government. The provincial government publishes "Status of the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Alberta" which states: "On the whole, there have been reductions in some populations and the distribution of caribou in Alberta has contracted, but the number of Woodland Caribou currently in Alberta remains largely unknown."


The Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC) re-designates the status of caribou as Threatened.


Regional caribou management standing committees merge into the Boreal Caribou Committee. The committee comprises industry and provincial government officials only.


Caribou are downgraded to the provincial Blue List. Caribou are now defined as species that may be at risk and have undergone irregular declines in population, habitat, or reductions in provincial distribution. The provincial population is estimated to be 3600 to 6700 individuals.

The multi-stakeholder committee formed in 1993 releases Alberta's Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy. The goal is "healthy populations in perpetuity throughout Alberta's caribou range". It recommends that "No significant new clearing of coniferous forests beyond existing commitments should be considered until caribou habitat supply analyses are completed." It is not implemented. The 1996 strategy mentions wolf culls only as a last resort.


COSEWIC redesignates the status of caribou to Vulnerable.


An Information Letter (IL 94-22) put out by the Energy Utilities Board, the regulatory arm of the oil and gas industry, states "It is anticipated that significant flexibility on the part of both the operator and AEP will be required to ensure that the plans are able to effectively meet the two goals of allowing energy development while adequately protecting woodland caribou...Industrial
activity can occur on caribou range provided that the integrity and supply of habitat is maintained to permit its use by caribou."


The Strategy for Conservation of Woodland Caribou in Alberta is drafted by Alberta's Fish and Wildlife Division. It specifically mentions the logging industry as the biggest threat to caribou survival in Alberta. "No approach has been demonstrated to be effective in maintaining caribou populations in association with timber harvest in the long term." The strategy recommendations were not adopted. A multi-stakeholder committee known as the Woodland Caribou Conservation Strategy Development Committee (WCCSDC) is formed to address caribou conservation and develop another strategy.


Regional standing committees comprising industry and government representatives are created to reduce land-use conflicts in caribou management areas. The wildlife sanctuary along Highway 40, first officially recommended in 1986, is designated.


Caribou are put on the provincial Red List of threatened species, defined as species that are at risk and have declined, or are in immediate danger of declining to a nonviable population size.

Alberta Energy releases "Operating Guidelines for Industrial Activity in Caribou Range" (IL 91-17; Alberta Energy).


In a letter to the Edmonton Journal (Feb 11), Assistant Deputy Minister of Alberta Forestry, Fish and Wildlife outlines Alberta's policy on wildlife management: "It is recognized that any restoration plan for these ungulate populations must address all the factors which are influencing their viability, including the provision of needed habitat, the control of access and the regulation of hunting."


Caribou are listed as an Endangered Species under Alberta's Wildlife Act. Another caribou management plan is drafted, the "Woodland Caribou Provincial Restoration Plan," with 5 main recommendations:

* control predators (70% reduction in wolf populations);

* conduct a proper population inventory;

* reduce human-caused mortality in caribou (due to poaching) by creating a wildlife sanctuary along Highway 40 and the Forestry Trunk Road;

* maintain and protect habitat;

* increase public awareness of caribou.

The Federation of Alberta Naturalists withdraws its support for the provincial Caribou Restoration Plan over government proposals to cull 70% of wolves near Jasper National Park.


Caribou are designated an Endangered Species by the Policy for the Management of Threatened Wildlife in Alberta, legislated under Alberta's Wildlife Act.


Calgary Herald reports that caribou poaching continues in areas near Grand Cache. COSEWIC recognizes the woodland caribou as a rare species. A provincial report suggests that the west-central Alberta caribou population has dropped to 300 individuals from a high of 1200 to 1800 in 1968. The report cites habitat loss, poaching and predation as the primary causes of the decline. The report also provides detailed timber harvesting and access guidelines for the management of caribou habitat areas.


Regional biologist and provincial caribou coordinator, Michael Bloomfield, resigns after his superiors in government continue to ignore recommendations for caribou protection as wolf culling programs are being discussed (Edmonton Journal, April 4, 1987).


Provincial biologists continue to push decision-makers to ban hunting and, later this same year, the second province-wide ban on caribou hunting commences. Provincial biologists propose that caribou be designated a Threatened Species. Michael Bloomfield, provincial biologist and caribou
management coordinator for Alberta, states that to protect caribou "all that is required is the resolve and inter-departmental commitment to solve the problem."


Provincial biologists suggest that the population of caribou has declined by at least 50% in the past 15 years. A Calgary Herald article reports that Fred McDougall, then Deputy Minister of Renewable Resources, says that "it would only be fair" if hunters were given a year warning on a possible hunting ban. This year was the second year in a row that AWA, along with the
25 000-member Alberta Fish and Game Association, has called on the government to ban caribou hunting.

A letter to AWA from J.E. Bud Miller, Associate Minister of Public Lands and Wildlife, states: "Our department shares your view that caribou need protection and we are quickly moving in that direction. I can assure you that caribou are now a high priority and will continue to receive our best efforts regardless of our management strategy."


Provincial population estimates are close to 3000, indicating a decline from the 1960s. A government biologist is quoted in the Calgary Herald suggesting that the decline of caribou is due to industrial activities. The Edson Leader quotes provincial biologist and caribou management coordinator Mike Bloomfield: "We have no other choice. Continued hunting and unrestricted development in caribou range could result in the disappearance of our resident populations."


Provincial biologists, in conjunction with AWA and other Alberta conservation groups, establish the "Caribou Management Outline for Alberta." Noteworthy recommendations from this work include the following:

* funds and resources must be allocated to ensure the protection of woodland caribou;

* wolf control must not be considered until a recovery program focusing on the cause of the caribou decline has been enacted;

* the government must no longer delay action that would reverse the long-term causes of caribou decline;

* a province-wide ban on hunting caribou must be initiated;

* a regional access management plan for industry and recreation must be created. In addition, 24 major land-use conflicts are identified but there is no mention of a more comprehensive stakeholder decision-making process. Forty-one caribou are harvested across the province this year.


Province-wide population is estimated at around 5000 individuals.


The population of caribou begins declining once again, with an estimated size of 600 to 700 animals in the Athabasca Forest Area (AFA; now known as the Willmore Wilderness Park). Oil and gas exploration activities increase substantially in backcountry areas. Backcountry road development facilitates hunting and poaching of caribou.


Approximately 100 animals are harvested (554 licensed hunters).

1966 - 1967

A railroad is built from Grand Cache to Hinton, bisecting the seasonal migration route of mountain caribou. According to a provincial status report from the late 1960s, growing
interest in caribou hunting from the public should be paralleled by an improved management plan on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Division. Industrial development booms in the area as the population of Grand Cache grows from 500 in 1950 to over 4000 by the end of the 1960s.


Government biologists estimate the size of the AFA herd to be 1200-1600 individuals. Antlered season (adult males and females) is opened, and 76 animals are harvested (360 licensed hunters). Other estimates of the provincial caribou population are closer to 9000 individuals.


Sixty-three animals are harvested in the AFA (120 licensed hunters).


Noted big-game hunter Jack O'Connor reports that the Smoky River area has an abundant diversity of mixed-game; this includes observations of several hundred caribou in 1943. In 1961 he returns to the area and does not find a single caribou. O'Connor blames easy access to backcountry areas from oil roads, noting that "unless there is a change for the better, the Smoky River caribou herd must certainly be extinct today." Government biologists estimate there are 800-1000 caribou.


Published manuscripts suggest that habitat destruction, mainly logging, is causing the decline of caribou due to caribou favoring mature forests to those which have been recently logged and are in early seral stages.


Government biologists estimate the size of the AFA herd to be 200-300 individuals.


For unidentified reasons the province re-opens the hunting season, according to a recent government report. An average of 19 animals are harvested per year during subsequent years.

1948 - 1949

Province-wide ban on caribou hunting. Annual provincial government reports note the continued scarcity of caribou in the AFA.


Government report suggests that the decline of caribou in the AFA is due to caribou emigration to British Columbia. Guides, hunters and forest officers report a near total absence of caribou in areas north of Jasper National Park.


Male-only season in the AFA; caribou hunting is banned in the rest of the province.

1945 - 1946

Two harsh winters are thought to have further decimated caribou populations.

Timber activities in the AFA grow until the area has the highest timber extraction rates of any Forest Reserve in the province by 1945.


Caribou hunting is restricted to north of the Brazeau River.


Provincial report acknowledges the overall decline of wildlife species, including caribou, in areas where logging companies operate.


Government report suggests southern range contraction, with no caribou herd found south of the Hay (or Wildhay) River.


Provincial government recommends minimal protection for this species due to declining numbers through the 1920s. No such protection was implemented. Population estimates are thought be more than 2000 individuals.


Provincial government reports a "stable" population of caribou.

1909 - 1943

Province-wide hunting season, one caribou per hunter, an average of 40 animals are harvested per year.

Pre 1900's

Distribution is thought to be discontinuous over 2/3 of the province throughout the mixed coniferous, boreal forest zone and the mountainous areas north of Banff National Park.

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