Published inBy Laura Bowman, Staff Counsel, Environmental Law Centre
In the Lower Athabasca portion of the Alberta oil sands region, biodiversity is a live issue. The region is resource-rich and subject to large forestry and oil and gas tenures that bring about the need for difficult political and economic tradeoffs. Wetlands and boreal forest ecosystems increasingly compete with oil sands and other development.
The recently enacted Alberta Land Stewardship Act, which provides authority for creating regional plans, is the major provincial effort aimed at addressing these tradeoffs. The unambiguous priority continues to be economic development of the region.
In August, the Alberta government released the advice it received on the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan from the Lower Athabasca Regional Advisory Council (RAC). What none of that advice or documentation reveals is the need to make extremely difficult choices between continued persistence of threatened habitat and species and further development.
A good example of this is the way the RAC advice handles boreal woodland caribou in the region. Woodland caribou are a sensitive and shy species, probably known to most only through the embossed picture on the Canadian quarter or from the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. These elk-like animals primarily rely on tiny lichens found in old growth forests for food. To avoid predators, caribou have low population densities. Changes to habitat can reduce the availability of lichens and increase the access of predators like wolves to caribou by creating corridors and allowing infiltration of other prey like moose, forcing caribou into smaller areas. Caribou also avoid developed areas.
Woodland caribou have been identified as at-risk for many years. These caribou number so few now in the Lower Athabasca that their persistence in the region is at best uncertain. Woodland caribou populations are also declining elsewhere in Canada’s boreal forest. Of the six herds in the Lower Athabasca, five are believed to have fewer than 200 animals and none are expected to persist in the long term.
Nearly every recent recommendation to government on caribou management has included a proposed moratorium on disturbance to caribou ranges. There is broad scientific consensus that economic development of caribou ranges may result in the disappearance of caribou from this region.
If limits to development do not happen, there is no compelling reason to believe that boreal forests and wetlands will be reclaimed so that woodland caribou could return. The tiny fraction of oil sands reclamation that has taken place has not typically involved replacing the black spruce and large wetland habitats that woodland caribou prefer.
The RAC advice has proposed to “recover” caribou, while continuing to degrade parts of some caribou ranges through “mixed use” designations. In other words, the advice ignores the science and asserts that we can have it both ways. The RAC advice does not spell out what caribou losses are predicted from its land use designations or how recovery is to be achieved. With only the advice of the RAC the public is left to piece together for itself precisely what the price paid in biodiversity will be and whether that price is too high. This lack of transparency about the environmental costs of the plan is a disservice to Albertans.
The laws and policies currently in place to protect species like caribou and their habitat have confronted difficult political and economic realities in regions with high economic value like the Lower Athabasca. Although caribou are listed under the federal Species at Risk Act, the mandatory protection of critical woodland caribou habitat under that act has never taken place. At the federal level, Canada made the decision to trade off largely in favor of endangered and threatened species when our elected representatives passed the Species at Risk Act. Sadly, those charged with implementing the act have not met this commitment.
In a similar fashion, the RAC advice on the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan implies that no difficult tradeoffs are necessary and that ecological “balance” is possible without slowing or altering development in caribou habitat. The reality, supported by strong science, is that altered development scenarios are the only way to recover caribou in the region. Continued development in the ranges will mean the loss of caribou and the ecological relationships between them and other species from the boreal forest of the Lower Athabasca.
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