“We have a minister of the environment out to destroy the environment!”
Those damning words were shouted in the 1970s by a farmer attending a standing-room-only meeting in the Spruce View Community Hall. There, angry area landowners gathered to form a society opposing government plans to build a dam on the Red Deer River that would flood their properties.
Then minister of Environment Dave Russell ignored two sets of public hearings condemning the plan. The lands once owned by those farmers now make up the bottom of Gleniffer Lake, behind the dam.
Today, it’s fair comment for Albertans and environmental groups to ask if Sustainable Resources Minister Mel Knight wears the same shoe size as Russell.
Knight has his hands full of plans flying in the face of conservation, while ignoring voices of concern.
Three cases stand out: The plight of the sage grouse; the dwindling herds of woodland caribou; and Potatogate II, the sale of Prairie grasslands.
The sage grouse species is on the brink of extinction, thanks primarily to energy exploration in southeastern Alberta. The population today consists of only 13 males and 17 females.
This species, known for its elaborate courtship rituals, has been named Alberta’s “most endangered species.”
In the 1960s, the bird was plentiful enough to hunt. In 1980, numbers fell to around 1,000. Today, at the government’s blessing, industry has cut through its habitat. Experts predict the species is doomed. Provincial and federal authorities appear to be ignoring the warning.
A group of conservationists, in a desperate attempt to revive the populations, recently launched the Sage Grouse Recovery Project. Plans call for relocating 220 female grouse to Southern Alberta from northern Montana over fours years.
But Brian Keating, former head of conservation outreach at the Calgary Zoo, has doubts about the project, noting the grouse are particularly sensitive to human development. “These birds don’t go within 1.9 km of a disturbed area, i.e. a gas well, so basically they’ve been pushed out of the area,” said Keating.
“I think we’ll see them disappear from Alberta. I don’t think there’s too much hope that they’re going to stay around.”
University of Alberta biologist Mark Boyce said the loss would be “the first case where the oil and gas industry has caused the extirpation of a species from Alberta.”
In Northern Alberta, industrial development threatens dwindling populations of the woodland caribou.
A study a year ago pegged the caribou in danger. Lack of habitat protection from the forestry industry and the ever-expanding oilsands development were fingered as chief contributors. “The best available evidence suggests that the Alberta woodland caribou qualifies for endangered” status, the study recommended in part.
But documents obtained by the The Canadian Press show that recommendation was placed on the backburner following pressure from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Alberta Forest Products Association. Endangered status could mean responsible management of habitat. Subsequently, a delay was granted, at the blessing of Knight’s department, in having the caribou declared endangered. Any protection for the ungulate has now been delayed for at least two years.
Next on the government’s ludicrous wish-list is the proposed sale of 16,000 acres of priceless, Crown-owned grassland in Southern Alberta, habitat to numerous struggling wildlife species — some designated under the federal Species at Risk Act.
Last year, the proposed sale was dubbed Potatogate. Premier Ed Stelmach held meetings with potential buyer SLM Spud Farms, which planned to grow potatoes on the land. The sale was cancelled after a groundswell of objections.
But Knight has put the land up for sale again, despite advice from his own biologists. Enter Potatogate II.
There was a glimmer of hope the habitat could be saved when a number of conservation groups offered to buy the land. But a condition of the sale, wrote Advocate columnist Bob Scammell, was “the buyer must plow, farm and irrigate the land.” In short, destroy the habitat, paving the way for SLM to make another bid to buy it.
Forty years down the road, Albertans have good reason to ask again if the province is intent on destroying the environment.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.