Alberta’s caribou herd said doomed

Analysis suggests caribou in Alberta’s oilsands region are doomed to disappear under the government’s proposed management plan for the area.

Analysis suggests caribou in Alberta’s oilsands region are doomed to disappear under the government’s proposed management plan for the area.

The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan doesn’t protect enough habitat from industrial impacts to stop a decades-long decline of 11 different caribou herds, says a paper by Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch.

“It is obvious from (the government’s) announcement that the surviveability of caribou was not an important consideration within this plan area,” said Lee, whose paper was peer-reviewed by three caribou biologists before being released online Monday.

But Sustainable Resources Minister Mel Knight said the province has every intention of preserving caribou in the oilsands region.

In April, the provincial government released a proposal that includes new protected sites in the oilsands region that would cover three times as much area as Banff National Park and bring about two million hectares of land under some form of protection.

But critics quickly pointed out the plan would allow already planned oil and gas development to proceed — even in the conservation areas. And it deliberately avoids protecting any new land in the richest oilsands area where development is heaviest.

Lee decided to overlay herd ranges and tracts proposed for protection with the latest satellite imagery of land disturbance from forest fires and energy development.

He found that the government’s proposed conservation areas would leave 93.3 per cent of caribou habitat in the area unprotected. As well, he found most of that habitat has already been heavily affected by recent fires and energy development.

Over the last 50 years, forest fires have burned through 41 per cent of the caribou range. Cutlines, roads, pipelines, mines and other industrial infrastructure affect 54 per cent.

When Lee combined the two, he found that less than one-quarter of all caribou range in the region remains undisturbed.

Two of 11 herds have had 90 per cent of their range disturbed. Another five have more than 80 per cent disturbance.

Environment Canada research suggests that human activity is the single largest factor in how many calves a herd is able to rear.

Using that model, Lee calculated that eight of the region’s caribou herds have a less-than 10 per cent chance of survival. The odds for even the healthiest herd in the least disturbed environment are only 50-50.

“The prospect of 10 of these 11 caribou herds supporting self-sustaining local populations in (the region) in the near future appear to be very, very low,” says the report. “With the accelerating pace of oil, gas and bitumen activities in the region … the prospect of all of these caribou herds supporting self-sustaining populations in the near future appear to be declining rapidly.”

But Knight said the plan for the lower Athabasca has to be considered in relation to the plans for nearby areas.

He said there is extensive caribou habitat in adjacent Wood Buffalo National Park. Similar reserves are being considered for the neighbouring land use plan to the west.

“You can’t just pick a little corner of the country and say, ’You’re not doing enough here,’ ” Knight said.

When the plan was introduced, Knight said the government deliberately chose to avoid protecting any new land where the oilsands deposits are richest.

Knight said the management plan was not primarily intended to protect caribou, but to balance the needs of all users of one of Alberta’s most controversial landscapes.

“What this is about is ensuring there is a balance,” he said Monday.

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