Canada and Alberta Sign Caribou Conservation Agreement

Despite being listed as threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA) in 2003, the Alberta government has made very little progress on woodland caribou protection or recovery. The Canadian and Alberta governments recently signed a new collaborative agreement to work towards caribou conservation. The agreement has some strengths and promising features but also leaves a lot of space for further delays by the Alberta government.


I sometimes wish I had known someone’s story while they were still alive. It’s too bad that we often only come to appreciate someone’s contributions after they’re gone. I regret that I did not know about Georgina Mace while she was alive. I suppose that’s not entirely true, though. I knew Georgina Mace’s work, only I didn’t know it was her. In an obituary published in Nature after her death in 2020, Mace is described as having “shaped two cornerstones of modern ecology and conservation”. Georgina Mace developed the criteria used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List to classify global species at risk. Prior to Mace’s work, “the Red List was based on nominations from experts rather than data, undermining confidence in its accuracy. She devised criteria to standardize assessments”. As a result of her vision to develop a rigorous system of criteria, the Red List “is now the most used and trusted source for assessing trends in global biodiversity”.

Georgina Mace (1953-2020) developed the evidence-based system used to classify species at risk on the IUCN’s Red List. Source: Nature

In 1852, almost exactly a century before Georgina Mace was born, the great auk was declared extinct after the last bird was seen off the coast of Newfoundland. In The Unnatural History of the Sea, marine biologist Callum Roberts describes the decline of great auk colonies off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. Captain George Cartwright spent 16 years living in the region in the late 18th century and warned of the risk of overhunting, predicting the bird’s extinction. In his book describing his experiences, Cartwright writes that “it has been customary of late years, for several crews of men to live all the summer on that island, for the sole purpose of killing birds for the sake of their feathers, the destruction which they have made is incredible. If a stop is not soon put to that practice, the whole breed will be diminished to almost nothing”.

There was a time when the entire concept of extinction was unthinkable. The world simply couldn’t comprehend that a species could completely disappear from the planet. We have certainly learned a great deal about conservation and have collectively worked hard to prevent the extinction of many species in North America over the centuries. Yet hundreds of plant and animal species remain at risk of extinction in Canada alone.

The great auk went extinct in 1852 from overhunting. Source: From Healthy to Extinct in 350 Years, Hakai Magazine

We now have mechanisms and frameworks to legally protect species and their habitats from identified threats to their survival. We need to more decisively mobilize those mechanisms and commit the resources needed. Unfortunately, today’s challenges are often more related to political will than a lack of knowledge. In the case of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), political priorities and industrial development too often take priority over meaningful conservation and management.

Woodland Caribou Decline

Woodland caribou have been declining across their entire North American range for decades.

Woodland caribou were listed as threatened in Canada under SARA in 2003. They were listed at risk under Alberta’s Wildlife Act in 2005. In 2012, the federal government found that 37 of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou herds were not self-sustaining.

Over the past century, local subpopulations have been lost; range contraction has proceeded from the south by up to 50% of historical range in some areas. For 37 of 51 subpopulations where trend data are available, 81% are in decline.

COSEWIC ASSESSMENT OF WOODLAND CARIBOU, 2014

The contiguous United States officially lost its last wild caribou in January 2019 after years of collaborative work between Canadian and American agencies to conserve the last transboundary herds.

Alberta has 15 populations of provincially managed woodland caribou in the province, subclassified into 12 boreal and three southern mountain populations. Jasper National Park is also home to two federally managed caribou herds. Both of the Jasper herds have 10 or fewer breeding females, and with a female giving birth to only one calf per year, the populations can not grow on their own. A third Jasper herd was declared extirpated in September 2020.

Alberta has 15 caribou ranges. Source: Setting Alberta on the Path to Caribou Recovery (2016)

In Canada, the federal and provincial governments collaboratively manage species at risk. Under the species at risk system, the federal government is responsible for developing a Recovery Strategy and Action Plan for species at risk and provinces are responsible for developing management and recovery plans for species consistent with the requirements of the SARA.

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Following COSEWIC’s Status Report for woodland caribou in 2002, the federal government was responsible for determining and listing for the species and developing subsequent plans for protection within five years. The federal government released the Recovery Strategy for woodland caribou in 2012, and released the Action Plan for woodland caribou in 2018. Since caribou were listed under the SARA in 2003, the Alberta government was legally required by section 42(2) of the SARA to identify caribou’s critical habitat in the province and develop a recovery strategy and protection plan.

Repeated Failures by the Alberta Government

Although the provinces have the primary responsibility for caribou protection, section 80 of the SARA gives the federal government the ability to issue an emergency order to intervene in species protections if a province does not develop an adequate and timely management plan (section 80 was used to protect the western chorus frog in 2016). In fact, a coalition of Indigenous communities and conservationists filed legal proceedings in 2011 to request that the federal government issue an emergency order under section 80 of the SARA. Canadian legal scholar Nigel Bankes notes that while the court did not order the federal government to intervene, the judge acknowledged the government’s violation of the SARA and failure to develop a recovery plan.

Critical habitat means the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species and that is identified as the species’ critical habitat in the recovery strategy or in an action plan for the species.

Species At Risk Act (2003)

After years of failing to take action and show progress on a strategy to protect caribou, in 2012, the federal government gave provincial governments five years to develop habitat protection plans to uphold their responsibilities under the SARA, with an October 2017 deadline. By the end of the five years, all provinces had failed to develop a plan.

Speaking about the complete lack of progress on protection plans for caribou after more than a decade of being listed at risk, Matt Dykstra, of Alberta Environment and Parks, said, “Alberta understands the importance of protecting critical caribou habitat, while also protecting northern Alberta jobs and communities”. In an effort to protect those jobs, across years of missed opportunities and total failure, Alberta watched its caribou herds rapidly decline due to increased habitat disturbance and fragmentation, largely as a result of energy corridor, forestry, and oil development.

Part of the problem in Alberta is that the province does not have any stand-alone endangered species legislation. Species are listed at risk under the provincial Wildlife Act but this piece of legislation is not designed or equipped to facilitate the assessment and protection measures necessary to stop and reverse the kinds of drastic declines caribou have been experiencing.

Nor can the Alberta government claim that it is unaware of this legislative gap. In Alberta’s Strategy for the Management of Species at Risk (2009-2014) document, one of the identified activities to conserve and recover species at risk includes the goal to “examine whether a provincial Species At Risk Act would enhance the current legal measures provided under Alberta’s Wildlife Act to accommodate species at risk in the province”. It is difficult to think that this would not enhance protections, yet no apparent progress towards this activity appears to have been made.

By November 2017, Indigenous groups and conservation organizations in Alberta called on the federal government to intervene to protect caribou critical habitat. After another year of relative inaction and continued habitat degradation and population decline, Indigenous and conservation groups filed legal action in January 2019 to force Environment and Climate Change Canada to step in and provide emergency protection for caribou in Alberta.

Finally, by November 2019, the Alberta government announced the creation of three sub-regional task forces to develop plans for the 15 provincial caribou ranges. Unfortunately, the task forces were not set up to address the province’s trademark feet-dragging. The province did not commit to a timeline to actually reach final plans.

Collaborative Caribou Conservation in Alberta

On October 23, 2020, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Alberta provincial Minister of Environment and Parks announced that the two levels of government had reached a collaborative deal for woodland caribou in Alberta called the Woodland Caribou (Southern Mountain and Boreal population) in Alberta agreement.

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The agreement was certainly a long time coming and is no doubt a historic moment. The goal of the agreement is to “support the conservation and recovery of woodland caribou local populations to naturally self-sustaining status, consistent with the population and distribution objectives and critical habitat outcomes” outlined in established caribou recovery strategies, including the Alberta government’s A Woodland Caribou Policy for Alberta (2011) and the federal government’s Range Plan Guidance for Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population (2016).

The Government of Canada recognizes that at this time, this collaborative approach—as opposed to an order under the Species at Risk Act—represents the best path forward for the conservation and recovery of boreal and southern mountain caribou in Alberta.

Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, 2020

One of the most important points of the new Woodland Caribou (Southern Mountain and Boreal population) in Alberta collaborative agreement is that this is the first time in the Alberta government’s sordid record of dealing with caribou conservation and recovery that it has directly tied its protection thresholds and recovery goals to the federal government’s Range Plan Guidance guidelines.

In particular, the agreement commits to achieving a minimum of 65% undisturbed habitat through a variety of programs, including landscape planning; habitat conservation, management, and recovery; mortality and population management; and population and habitat monitoring. As of 2017, the provincial NDP Alberta government reported that no boreal caribou ranges had more than 35% undisturbed habitat. Caribou in the Little Smoky range had only 1% undisturbed habitat. Southern mountain caribou habitat had a better record, with the A La Peche range having 92% undisturbed habitat in their summer range, yet only 12% undisturbed habitat in their winter range (their entire winter range is allocated for forest harvesting and 95% of winter range is available for oil and gas development).

The agreement sets out a series of conservation, management, and recovery measures to achieve short (5 years), medium (10 years), and long-term (50-100 years) targets. The measures are designed to achieve population stability and habitat protection and restoration goals.

The agreement certainly represents a positive example of collaboration between the multiple jurisdictions collectively responsible for species at risk conservation, management, and recovery in Canada. The agreement commits to engaging with Indigenous peoples impacted by caribou recovery. A previous court cases specifically concerning caribou acknowledged the need for governments to consider how their duties related to Indigenous rights intersect with legal obligations to protect and recover species at risk.

The agreement also commits to engaging other stakeholder groups, but does not define or provide examples of what these other groups might include.

Potential Hope and Glaring Shortcomings

There certainly isn’t space to deconstruct every aspect of the new Woodland Caribou (Southern Mountain and Boreal population) in Alberta agreement. There are some key structural features of the agreement that illustrate some of the broader reasons for hope and reveal a few glaring shortcomings of the approach.

It is promising that the joint agreement adopted well-established and science-based conservation and habitat protection targets. An important feature of the agreement is its focus on the development of range plans, which allows for fairly localized management of caribou herds and enables governments to adjust management actions based on the dynamics of herds. It is also encouraging to see commitments to annual reporting structures from the committee established to govern the agreement.

The agreement uses the federal government’s Range Plan Guidance target to ensure there is 65% undisturbed habitat in a range. This is positive but also comes with some nuance. The Range Plan Guidance identifies 65% undisturbed habitat as the minimum threshold to achieve a reasonable probability that a local population will be self-sustaining. However, the document also notes that even at 65% undisturbed habitat, “there remains a significant risk (40%) that local populations will not be self-sustaining”.

It is important to underscore the drastic declines of caribou in Alberta over the last two decades and the apathy that seems to have characterized government attitudes. Even in 2011, federal ECCC Minister Peter Kent explained the reasoning for his decision not to intervene with a SARA section 80 emergency order that “the current range and conditions are sufficient for 27 of the 57 herds” and that with sufficient conditions for less than half of Alberta’s herds, he was comfortable stating that “there are no imminent threats to the survival of boreal caribou”.

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It is concerning that the new agreement sets a short term (5 years) goal to “deliver management actions to maintain or achieve stable or positive growth” for only seven of Alberta’s local caribou populations. The agreement doesn’t commit to delivering management actions for all local populations until 10 years (medium term). Particularly concerning is that these are only commitments to deliver management actions. The agreement aims to “achieve naturally self-sustaining status for all woodland caribou local populations in Alberta” in 50-100 years.

There is some good potential here but there are also some concerning escape hatches.

Carolyn Campbell, Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA)

On the topic of critical habitat protection, there are some important and positive targets in the short term (5 years), including to finalize and implement plans that “support achievement of woodland caribou critical habitat outcomes for all woodland caribou local population ranges” and to pursue habitat restoration. However, the agreement also aims, within 5 years, to enable “resumption of subsurface mineral sales in woodland caribou local population ranges”. This is particularly troublesome.

Recall that Alberta identified the need to examine the need for a specific provincial Species At Risk Act back in 2009. The new caribou agreement sets a 10 year goal to “Evaluate the potential to protect woodland caribou habitat through Alberta’s existing legislative or regulatory tools”. It is unclear why, even 10 years from now, the Alberta government still can not commit to exploring and implementing new legislative or regulatory tools to enhance caribou protection.

As I noted, the plan commits to engaging Indigenous communities and that it will “consider” opportunities for collaboration with other stakeholders. However, it is currently quite slim on details related to who these other stakeholders will be and whether it will include independent stakeholders to assist with implementation and monitoring. The agreement lists the Alberta government as the accountable agency for 35 out of 37 listed recovery measures. This also seems to be cause for concern. It is clear that the provincial government has not devoted the political will or resources needed to protect and recover caribou since they were identified as threatened. Therefore, it seems imperative that independent conservation organizations and experts are included in advising and governing the new agreement.

Conclusions

The Alberta government is obsessed with oil development like a stray dog ripping open a garbage bag on the street for every last scrap of food. The federal government could have stepped in years ago to force the Alberta government to take action on caribou. But we know by now that proactive and collaborative conservation planning is far more effective in the long-run for wildlife. Unfortunately, the Alberta government took that opportunity away from us by dragging their feet for over a decade. On the federal government’s part, they seemed unsure whether SARA was a dull sword or a pen that has run out of ink and waited far too long to take action.

We are now in a situation where the federal and provincial governments are taking a collaborative approach, which is great, but it is so late and so reactive to what has become an emergency situation, I fear it is destined to either fail outright or be ineffective even if it achieves its own stated goals.

The new collaborative conservation agreement between the Canadian and Alberta governments is an important and critically required step in slowing and reversing the decline of woodland caribou in Alberta. There are still a few lessons from history that we need to keep in the forefront of our minds and important next steps that are important to pursue.

Georgina Mace articulated a set of science-based criteria to guide the IUCN’s Red List. This criteria ensures that species at risk are being classified and managed through evidence-based approaches. Caribou recovery in Alberta needs to be guided by all of the best available knowledge. It needs to be evidence-based and guided by the goal of caribou recovery. The Alberta government needs to stop prioritizing development over habitat and wildlife. Evidence-based conservation means prioritizing what is best for the species and this means restoring habitat and no longer degrading existing habitat.

2 Comments on “Canada and Alberta Sign Caribou Conservation Agreement

  1. One precision correction, AB is home to 15 populations of caribou managed by the province, the 3 mountain herds are: Narraway, Red-Rock Prairie Creek and A La Peche. The Jasper herds are federally managed and therefore do not count in terms of numbers into the 15 that were mentioned, otherwise it would be 17 total caribou populations in Alberta (add Tonquin and Brazeau). The 3 mountain herds in Alberta are simply referred to as the mountain ecotype and not southern mountain.

    • That’s a great clarification, thank you Franco. You’re right, 15 populations of provincially managed caribou and two herds of federally managed caribou that live in Jasper, with the Maligne herd recently declared extirpated from Jasper. I’ve made that correction in the piece. Thanks for reading and reaching out!

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