Caribou need land: committee

A committee tasked with saving Alberta’s dwindling population of caribou will recommend the province set aside vast swatches of land to keep the iconic animal from disappearing from parts of the province within decades.

CALGARY — A committee tasked with saving Alberta’s dwindling population of caribou will recommend the province set aside vast swatches of land to keep the iconic animal from disappearing from parts of the province within decades.

The recommendations from the Alberta Caribou Committee are based on computer modelling that suggests drastic and immediate action is needed to protect the animals that roam the northeastern part of the province.

“This is quite unprecedented,” said Cliff Wallis of the Alberta Wilderness Association, who sits on the committee. “It’s about time.”

The recommendations stem from a technical report on the region which suggests thousands of kilometres of habitat need to be protected in order for the animals to rebound.

“All monitored populations are currently in decline,” consultant Terry Antoniuk told a meeting of the committee Tuesday.

Projections suggest the animals won’t survive in any number in the region past 20 to 40 years unless something changes, he said.

Even if current habitat is protected and future development forbidden over thousands of kilometres, it won’t be enough to sustain the population, he said.

Habitat protection needs to be combined with measures aimed at keeping wolf populations low in order to allow the caribou to survive.

“We’re talking about a fundamentally different way of doing business,” Antoniuk said, adding “tough decisions” need to be made about protecting the animals and industrial land use.

George Hamilton, the committee’s interim program manager, said the group won’t suggest where or how the protected areas are brought in.

“The technical team said we do need to establish some areas where the focus is going to be on maintaining good caribou habitat,” he said.

“It doesn’t answer the question of where those are going to be, or how big they are, or whether they are the basis of a new park or protected area.”

Early monitoring data presented at the meeting, although imprecise, also found that nine out of twelve caribou populations counted across the province declined over the last year.

“I think the numbers tell it all,” said Wallis.

He pointed out that no habitat has yet been protected for caribou in the four years since the committee was created.

“It shows a total lack of commitment on part of the Alberta government to what’s needed to recover caribou.”

The committee — made up of government, industry and environmental groups — will try to have its recommendations considered as the government puts together a land-use framework across the province.

Dave Ealey, spokesman for Sustainable Resource Development, said after the meeting that the government has to balance many interests when figuring out how land will be used.

Industry and social uses must be considered along with environmental issues such as caribou conservation, and legislating protected areas might not be the best way to go, he said.

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