Will Alberta play its part?

Ottawa’s long-awaited recovery strategy for Canada’s vanishing woodland caribou could be on a collision course with the province.

Ottawa’s long-awaited recovery strategy for Canada’s vanishing woodland caribou could be on a collision course with the province.

The plan, five years overdue, places major emphasis on the preservation of caribou habitat.

It says the energy industry is a major player in the destruction of caribou habitat. In particular, oilsands development is one of the largest intruders of habitat in the fragile boreal forests.

The federal plan says caribou ranges should be at least 65 per cent undisturbed.

“For boreal caribou ranges with less that 65 per cent undisturbed habitat, restoration . . . will be necessary,” the report stated.

The report concludes that most of the ranges not meeting the 65 per cent threshold are in Alberta, where oilsands development has disturbed more than 80 per cent of some areas.

This could put the federal plans at odds with the province, said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank.

“The target for every range is to incrementally start improving toward 65 per cent,” said Dyer. “I would think that it would require a much higher level of due diligence (in Alberta) to ensure restoration is exceeding the rate of new development. It does set the recovery plan on a collision course with industry.”

Previous studies have suggested that almost all Alberta caribou herds, most of which are in the oilsands region, are very unlikely to survive. Restoring habitat in those areas to meet the 65 per cent protection standards would be a mammoth and incredibly costly task.

Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association warns that co-operation between federal and provincial governments is paramount for the strategy to work.

Campbell said her group is elated that Ottawa has “recognized the most urgent thing is habitat restoration and landscape planning.”

However, it’s not clear to what extent the province will co-operate with the caribou recovery plan.

The environmental watchdog group Eco-Justice gave Alberta a failing grade for its species at risk management in a recent report.

It was noted that Alberta, unlike many other provinces, has no legislation specific to species at risk. There’s no system in place to identify such species, no requirement to protect species’ habitat and no legal requirement to implement recovery action.

So is Alberta legally obligated to accept Ottawa’s plans for the woodland caribou? That remains to be seen.

Based on past history, it seems unlikely that the province will be anxious to help.

The wilderness association points to the province’s record of ignoring the struggling populations of the caribou, grizzly bears and the greater sage grouse.

“It’s important to remember that this is not just about individual species; it is about entire ecosystems that they represent,” said Katie Rasmussen, a conservation specialist with the association. “If one species is faring poorly, it’s likely those problems are affecting the whole system.”

Of equal concern is the suggestion that Ottawa intends to weaken its Species at Risk Act this fall, meaning there will be a greater need for provinces to be leaders in the battle to protect species.

Either way, the pressure to act lands firmly in the province’s lap.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.