'Very dire situation': Disappearance of Alberta's caribou threatens centuries-old way of life

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'Very dire situation': Disappearance of Alberta's caribou threatens centuries-old way of life

'Very dire situation': Disappearance of Alberta's caribou threatens centuries-old way of life

Brian Grandbois remembers the northern lights flickering across the sky over his childhood home.

When he looks up now, he sees the glow of light trapped under an umbrella of steam and smoke, pouring from the oil and gas processing plants that carpet the land northwest of Cold Lake, Alta.

An elder on the Cold Lake First Nation, Grandbois is especially worried about woodland caribou, which now share the forest with pipelines and oil wells.

Development in Alberta has also opened pathways to woodland habitats for predators including wolves, which chip away at caribou herds.

Roads and seismic lines allow wolves to travel two to three times more quickly, said Stan Boutin, a University of Alberta biology professor with more than 20 years experience researching caribou.

The wolf packs cut into the forest, hunting caribou that hide among the trees.

"The way caribou have survived in the past is to basically avoid these guys at all cost," Boutin said. "The poor caribou just can't cope with this increased predation rate."

Boutin is part of the Alberta Biodiversity Conservation Chair Program, which funds field research intended to help Canada develop a sustainable oilsands industry. 

Development on woodland caribou habitat needs to be scaled back if the animals are to have any chance of survival, he said.

There are 15 caribou herds in Alberta, each with its own territory. Disturbances of caribou habitats throughout Alberta range from 55 to 96 per cent of land the animals use. Humans are responsible for most of the damage.

The least damaged habitat is Yates, which is 55 per cent disturbed. 

Alberta's herds are declining so rapidly, Boutin said, the species should be listed as fully endangered.

"No matter which way you slice it, all the indications are that it is a very dire situation and action has to take place soon if we have any chance of protecting these herds in the province," he said.

"Every day we wait, we lose more caribou, and it's going to be harder to restore them to even the numbers we have now."

Protections plans past deadline

In 2002, the boreal caribou became a threatened species in Canada.

As the population dwindles, Grandbois said he fears his people could forever lose a cornerstone of their culture.

"We have stories that are thousands of years old that relate to our people, the Denesuline, and the caribou," Grandbois said.

"The caribou were like what the buffalo were to the plains people."

- 2009 Half of Canada's boreal caribou herds in decline

- 2010 Alberta First Nations urge caribou protection

- 2013 Woodland caribou still at risk, despite federal plan to help

Cold Lake is home to one of 15 caribou herds left in Alberta. All but four of the herds are declining in numbers, according to the province.

"Woodland caribou populations are mostly not doing very well," said Dave Hervieux, the provincial government's caribou biologist.

He estimates herds are shrinking by about eight per cent annually, though some herds have decreased at twice that average.

In 2012, the federal government mandated that the nine provinces and territories with woodland caribou populations craft plans to protect the animals.

The plans were due on Oct. 5, a deadline none of the provinces or territories fully met.

Alberta partially fulfilled the mandate by drafting a range plan last summer for two of its most endangered herds, Little Smoky and A La Peche.

Both herds have since stabilized, which Hervieux attributes to measures such as killing the wolves that prey on caribou.

He expects the final range plan, which will specify how Alberta intends to protect all caribou herds, will be several months overdue.

"The province would like to take the time to get it right, make sure there's good engagement with stakeholders, Indigenous people and so on," Hervieux said.

"If plans are delayed by a month, or two or three, or four, or a bit longer, it's not going to make too much difference." 

The challenge lies in balancing caribou preservation with commitments the province has already made to the energy sector, Hervieux said. 

"A lot of people in Alberta make their living with resource extraction and other industries in and around the caribou range, so we need to be considerate of that," he said.

But if Alberta doesn't meet the national mandate to protect woodland caribou, the provincial government could lose the freedom to negotiate a plan that satisfies business stakeholders.

Under the Species at Risk Act, the federal government can file an environmental protection order to gain sweeping powers over threatened species. 

In 2013, Canada used such an emergency order to protect greater sage grouse in Alberta and Saskatchewan by prohibiting virtually all forms of development known to threaten the species.

"The goal of Alberta is to create plans that will reduce or eliminate the potential for a federal environmental protection order," Hervieux said.

"That would be clearly beneficial for Canada, for Alberta, for our stakeholders here in the province."

Air weapons range complicates conservation

The Cold Lake First Nation is watching closely as the province prepares to release its final range plan, said councillor Kelsey Jacko.

Indigenous communities that share land with the caribou need to be included in whatever decisions the province makes, he said.

"The caribou keeps dying and something has to be done," Jacko said. "This is not just about treaty rights; it's about culture, too.

"We've always been caribou people. But without the caribou, it just feels like we're losing something right now and something has to be done in order to protect our heritage and our culture."

The Cold Lake Air Weapons Range complicates conservation plans in the area. The highly restricted air force range spans 11,700 square kilometres of the caribou's habitat.

Alberta and Saskatchewan set aside the land in 1953, barring Indigenous hunters from freely accessing traditional trapping grounds.

In 2001, the Cold Lake First Nation signed a settlement with the government that included a $25-million payment for the range.

Without access or control over land inhabited by the threatened herd, Jacko said his community has lost its connection to the caribou.

"This is the hardest problem Cold Lake First Nation has faced," he said. "The only way we're going to solve this is working together with government and everyone that's concerned about this issue."

The Cold Lake First Nation wants the province to protect land that isn't currently used by the air force or energy companies. Some land should also be reclaimed, Jacko said.

The boreal forest near Cold Lake is laced with roads and pipelines, forming a web between oil wells and processing plants.

Grandbois said he doesn't expect the development to disappear completely. But he hopes some of the land can be restored for both the caribou and the people who traditionally hunted them. 

His ancestors hunted the caribou for centuries, using every part of the animal. But in his lifetime, Grandbois said he has never been able to harvest one of the animals.

"At one time, the caribou helped us and I'm thinking that at some point they can help us again," Grandbois said.

"Hopefully, if we can influence industry and government in some way, we'll be able to protect habitat for ourselves and for the caribou."

As he drives the roads through forests his parents and grandparents showed him on horseback decades ago, Grandbois said he hardly recognizes the landscape of his memories.

"When I go back to those places and remember the freedom that our elders enjoyed, the laughter around the campfires and the storytelling in the evenings around our camps, from the old people down to the  grandchildren, those are memories that I'll always cherish," he said.

"It's sad when we go back to those places and realize that it's almost non-existent. If I could come and show my grandchildren a little bit of that, I think it would make my heart happy."