Logging proposal near Grande Cache, Alta., could put caribou at risk of local extinction, residents say

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West Fraser, a Canadian forestry company, plans to log old growth south of Grande Cache in caribou habitat. Part of the area slated to be clearcut is shown here. (Supplied by Gillian Chow-Fraser, CPAWS Northern Alberta - image credit)
West Fraser, a Canadian forestry company, plans to log old growth south of Grande Cache in caribou habitat. Part of the area slated to be clearcut is shown here. (Supplied by Gillian Chow-Fraser, CPAWS Northern Alberta - image credit)

A new logging proposal has residents in Grande Cache, Alta., worried about the impacts on local caribou habitat.

Earlier this summer, Shane Ramstead received a letter proposing timber harvesting on his trapline south of the community. West Fraser, a Canadian forestry company, plans to log 54 cutblocks side-by-side next month on land where caribou live.

"It's a slap in the face," said Ramstead, a former fish and wildlife officer in the area for over 30 years.

"This logging proposal flies in the face of reason."

The cutblocks — specific areas of land, with defined boundaries, authorized for harvest — are within habitat for A La Peche and the Little Smoky herds. Combined, both herds have under 250 caribou, according to the province.

Part of the A La Peche herd range is in Jasper National Park, but only 12 per cent of their winter range is undisturbed by industry, according to a 2017 draft of the Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan.

Supplied by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
Supplied by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

Meanwhile, the Little Smoky range is already 99 per cent disturbed by industry — making it one of the most at risk for local extinction in Alberta, the document states.

Caribou need a minimum 65 per cent of undisturbed habitat to survive, and an agreement made last year between Alberta and the federal government is to ensure that minimum is maintained.

Herd specific plans for the A La Peche and Little Smoky are expected by 2023.

They are expected to shape future forest management to support caribou recovery, while including economic opportunities for forestry, a provincial government spokesperson said.

West Fraser logging in these areas before those plans are release, however, is "irresponsible and completely indefensible," said Ramstead.

The company consulted with stakeholders, including Aseniwuche Winewak Nation, which had no site-specific objections to the proposal, a West Fraser spokesperson said.

The logging is also consistent with direction from the Alberta government, they added.

Although West Fraser's proposal is within caribou habitat, collared caribou data suggests few use that area, according to a news release issued by Aseniwuche Winewak Nation

Ramstead claims to have seen many caribou there "over the years," but only noticed one with a collar, he said.

"They're still utilizing this habitat. It's classified as core habitat for good reason," said Ramstead.

Caribou listed as threatened species in 2003

In 2003, the federal government listed the central mountain caribou population as threatened.

The status of the mammal's barren ground population is under consideration, after the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada — an independent advisory panel to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada — deemed it threatened in 2016.

"Every time we lose a species, it affects every single one of us in some way, shape or form. Everything's connected," said Hilda Hallock, resident of Grande Cache and the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation.

Hallock remembers when, years ago, hundreds of caribou migrated through the region annually.

"Now you might see one or two, maybe three," she said.

"They appear to be more sensitive than most other animals. You can kind of squeeze other animals a little bit every now and again, but not caribou."

Frederic Lesmerises/submitted
Frederic Lesmerises/submitted

Wolf culling still needed to protect herds

Ramstead is scratching his head about the clearcuts, given the Alberta government still has to kill wolves to protect caribou herds.

In the past decade, 2,604 wolves were culled in Alberta. Of that, 1,563 were in the west-central region, according to the provincial government.

The province was unable to provide figures on how much it costs to kill wolves during that time.

The caribou herd is stable, but likely not self-sustaining, because wolves are abundant in Alberta and wolf culling is essential for the mammal's survival, the province said.

Regardless of wolf culls, protecting habitat is the most important approach to saving the threatened caribou, Ramstead said.

Grande Cache is a hamlet just over 370 kilometres west of Edmonton, near Willmore Wilderness Park.

LISTEN | Planned clear-cuts could put endangered caribou at risk

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