Alberta considers fencing off calving pens to help caribou in forests

Scientists are putting Alberta at the head of the herd among provinces with a strategy to preserve threatened caribou that includes sectioning off forest to protect calving cows.

EDMONTON — Scientists are putting Alberta at the head of the herd among provinces with a strategy to preserve threatened caribou that includes sectioning off forest to protect calving cows.

While the plan for a $40-million restoration of industry-damaged habitat and huge new protected areas has drawn applause, questions remain about whether calving pens will do any good.

“It could be an OK idea, but there’s no evidence for it,” said Mark Hebblewhite, a University of Montana biologist familiar with Alberta’s caribou conflicts.

The federal government has given provinces until 2017 to come up with range plans and recovery strategies for caribou herds, which are in danger across the country.

In Alberta, where the situation is arguably the worst, decades of development has herds clinging to a few scraps of old-growth forest. Numbers have declined by about 60 per cent and some ranges are more than 80 per cent disturbed.

The provincial government released a draft Wednesday that includes a recovery strategy and a range plan for one particularly threatened herd, which has declined to a few dozen.

The draft calls for the protection of another 18,000 square kilometres of habitat in northern Alberta for a total of 49,000 square kilometres. It also includes restoration of more than 10,000 kilometres of seismic lines that chop up habitat and provide a highway for predators to be paid for by industry through green bonds.

Energy development would be “rescheduled” and logging old-growth forest on caribou range would be blocked. Wolves would continue to be shot to try to manage predation, although bears also eat caribou calves.

The draft also suggests fencing off a 100-square-kilometre habitat for female caribou during the calving season.

“You need protection only for a few weeks,” said Stan Boutin, a University of Alberta biologist, who has long supported the idea. “Once those calves get over a certain age, the bears are no longer taking them.”

Calving pens are also likely to be more palatable for the public than killing wolves and bears, he said.

Hebblewhite is concerned caribou coming out of a predator-free enclosure would not know how to handle themselves in the wild. He pointed out a similar experiment with elk only saw one-quarter of the penned animals survive.

Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association called the plan an artificial prop. She asked if caribou within the pen would have to be fed as well.

“It’s choosing to domesticate wild animals because we fail to take some necessary steps.”

Still, the NDP government was widely praised for moving on an issue that stymied the previous Conservatives for a decade.

“They’re big steps in the right direction and a huge benefit to caribou,” said Hebblewhite.

“I don’t think there’s any question it’s a really historic, far-sighted decision,” Campbell said.

The province is now showing the way, Boutin said.

“Alberta is the lead in the country in terms of trying to do something for caribou management.”

Paul Whittaker, president of the Alberta Forest Products Association, acknowledged the plan would cost the industry access to trees.

“This plan is not without impact on the forestry sector,” said Whittaker.

But the draft does a good job of considering all players on a busy landscape, he said.

Brad Herald of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said his industry is determined to do its part.

“The innovative funding approach will enable significant restoration activity in the near term while recognizing the challenges industry is facing in the current economic downturn,” he said in a statement.

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said the government has accepted all the draft’s recommendations and will seek public comment. Meetings with industry and First Nations are being scheduled.

The province will also hit up Ottawa for money to finance some of the initiatives, she said.

“This has gone from a being a file that makes me want to put my head in my hands to a file that I’m reasonably optimistic and positive about.”

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