Critics say the Alberta government’s plan to fence in threatened woodland caribou to protect them is an experiment and doesn’t address the real issue — loss of habitat, not wolves.
The province recently released a draft plan to protect the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds in their ranges northwest of Hinton.
Under the federal Species At Risk Act, Alberta is required to preserve 65 per cent of critical caribou habitat by October 2017.
The Alberta Environment and Parks plan proposes to build a 100-sq-km fenced caribou rearing facility within the Little Smoky caribou range. Eventually young adult caribou would be released outside of the fenced area to help increase the caribou population.
This would protect adult and young caribou from predation and allow for the removal of predators and other animals within the fenced area. There are only only about 70 Little Smoky caribou. Alberta has a total of about 3,500 caribou.
The province also wants to work with industry to ensure the restoration of over 10,000 kilometres of seismic lines to caribou habitat in the two caribou ranges.
Overall, it would also protect 4.4 million more acres of caribou range in Northern Alberta for a total of 12 million acres.
Dwight Rodtke, retired problem wildlife specialist for Alberta Agriculture, said Tuesday that the real problem threatening caribou is their loss of habitat, not wolves.
There are all kinds of problems inherent with the fencing project, said Rodtke, who lives in the Rocky Mountain House area.
They will have to kill everything inside the fence area, such as wolves, and other ungulates that would compete with the caribou.
It’s “super difficult” to keep animals from going back and forth, particularly predators, he said, as they dig under the fences. Fences also go down and trees fall on them.
“It’s ridiculous. The stream crossings … by themselves are next to impossible to get to be effective,” Rodtke said.
It’s just a guess that it’s wolves that are killing caribou calves, he said. Wolves are busy staying with their own young when caribou calves are being born, but bears are coming out of hibernation then, he said.
About 1,000 wolves have been killed in the Little Smoky area over 10 years and yet the caribou population increase is still minuscule, Rodtke said. The area has been largely disturbed by industry such as oil and gas, and forestry.
“It’s an excellent thing to try and protect the caribou but everything that I can see doesn’t point toward wolves being the major problem.”
“The more the public complains about the wolf de-population plan, the less they complain about the real issues, which are industrial development and everything like that.” Caribou across Canada are in trouble because of habitat loss, he said.
Biologist Sadie Parr, executive director of Wolf Awareness Inc., said promises to restore and protect more caribou habitat is a step in the right direction. “However I’m frustrated at the continued scapegoating of wolves.”
“As long as we’re allowing industry to continue within these caribou habitat ranges, we’re contributing to the problem.”
Animals continue to be blamed even though it’s well accepted that the ultimate cause of caribou decline is loss of, and a lower quality of, habitat, Parr said.
“Wolf Awareness feels this is all management and no conservation, and this is an experiment because there’s no evidence that shows this is going to work.”
“What kind of legacy do we want to leave, Canada? Is our wildlife doomed to be in enclosures? That’s a game farm, which is very, very different than wilderness.”
The province argues that the primary cause of caribou mortality is wolf predation but does acknowledge that wolves and caribou have co-existed for millennia.
It says that the hypothesis with the most scientific support is that increased development and destruction of habitat has allowed wolves to increase their predation of caribou beyond sustainable levels. Recovery of habitat is expected to take decades.
The public can provide input on the draft caribou action plan online until Aug. 5 through the Environment and Parks website. More information on the plan is available at the same website, aep.alberta.ca.