Alberta wraps up public consultation on caribou plan

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Alberta wraps up public consultation on caribou plan

Alberta is in the final stages of planning how it will meet a federal mandate to protect threatened boreal and mountain caribou herds in the province.

Public information sessions concluded on Thursday with a final consultation in Grande Prairie.

The next step is determining specific strategies for each of Alberta's caribou ranges, said Brian Makowecki, executive director of planning for Alberta Environment and Parks.

Stakeholders, such as municipalities that share land with the ranges, will be included in the final planning phase, he added.

"Certainly people are wondering about how forestry operations would continue in the future, what opportunities there are for energy development," Makowecki said.

"We've been working with a lot of people to inform them of what the opportunities are and ensure that we can improve outcomes for caribou and keep Albertans working."

Once the details are finalized, the province will release a range plan. The plan must meet federal guidelines, including that at least 65 per cent of each caribou range be undisturbed in the future.

Restoring disturbed habitat in Alberta could take up to 100 years, according to Alberta Environment and Parks.

"We're going to continue to work with communities to ensure that we've got a plan that makes sense for Alberta," Makowecki said.

"We've got some work that we're already doing and we've reported to the federal government on that work and we're going to continue to do work."

Most of Alberta's caribou ranges are in the northern half of the province. The various territories overlap with municipalities, First Nations reserves and Métis settlements.

The province estimates 67 municipalities and 70 First Nations and Métis groups have a social or economic interest in range planning.

Representatives from Environment and Parks visited six communities in northern Alberta from Feb. 20 until Thursday to talk about the plan.

More than 2,000 people have participated in the public information sessions, Makowecki said.

Lisa Wardley, deputy reeve for Mackenzie County, attended five of the sessions, including Thursday's final meeting in Grande Prairie.

Mackenzie County is the largest county by size in Alberta. It includes caribou ranges such as Yates and Bistcho.

"Our thing for range plans is we believe that we can actually protect the woodland caribou as well as the economy in a more balanced approach," Wardley said. "We don't see a real balanced approach coming out of the current draft plans that the province has put forward."

Wardley also chairs the Northwest Species at Risk Committee, which includes six municipal governments in northwestern Alberta. The committee formed in response to provincial planning to protect caribou.

Members of the committee hope to influence Alberta's final range plan by providing their perspectives as stakeholders, Wardley said.

"We believe that we're being heard, we believe that people are taking notice," she said. "But do we believe that we're really making a difference? I'm not sure.

"I guess it will depend on what the final range plans come out looking like and we hope that they're actually listening."

Strategies outlined in the province's draft plan, which was released in December, focus too much on conserving land and not enough on increasing caribou numbers, Wardley said.

Restrictions to development in northern Alberta will hurt the local economy, she added.

"Especially in the north, it's already harder to attract development and attract business," Wardley said. "We don't necessarily need any additional restrictions."

In 2012, the federal government mandated that all provinces and territories with caribou herds must create plans to protect the animals.

If a province or territory fails to meet the mandate, Ottawa can file an environmental protection order under the Species at Risk Act, freezing any development that harms caribou, including natural resource extraction.

Alberta missed the October 2017 deadline, instead filing a draft. The province has not said when it will release its final caribou range plan.