The David and Goliath struggle in Canada’s boreal forest continues…..but against a backdrop of endless wins for Goliath, finally there is a win (of sorts) for David.
Years ago the Canadian Government had pledged to draft a strategy for helping caribou populations recover. This was prompted by national alarm at how the species was declining across Canada’s boreal forest. One study found that two Alberta herds had declined by three-quarters in the last 10 to 15 years, with some herds now numbering fewer than 200 animals.
As you’d expect, many studies place the blame squarely with habitat destruction. Canada’s vast natural resources give the impression that it is able to absorb large scale plundering without too much impact, but forestry and oil exploitation have side-effects many miles from the target areas.
Forestry itself is alleged to have destroyed nearly 110,000 hectares of habitat in northern Alberta. The oil industry has created 35,000 oil and gas wells, 66,000 kilometres of seismic lines, 13,000 kilometres of pipelines and 12,000 kilometres of roads. Toxic waste products from the extraction process pollute lakes and watercourses and are carried far off downstream, away from the sites themselves.
The extent of the oil industry up there is mindblowing. If you’ll permit me to plunder my own personal experience for a moment…….on a flight from Amsterdam to Calgary a few years ago the plane I was on flew down the spine of Alberta, from north to south. I was glued to the window because at the time I had no idea what the thousands of squares were on the ground in what I thought was a wilderness area. Someone pointed out they were oil wells…..and for about 90 minutes, travelling at 500mph that was all you could see on the ground, as far as the eye could see. It was sobering to say the least.
A recent report by Global Forest Watch found an average of 75 per cent of caribou range in the tar sands region has been disturbed by fire, industry or both. Alberta has of course outlined protected areas as part of a land-use plan for the tar sands region but this has done nothing to appease its critics, who say the areas aren’t in the regions most important to caribou and are threatened by development.
The caribou collapse has been documented by biologists for over a decade now, but the current rate of loss has led some scientists to predict that the caribou could be gone completely within 30 years if action to reverse it isn’t taken.
It is against this backdrop that the Canadian government agreed to assemble the recovery plan…..but they have missed the mandatory statutory deadline by……wait for it…..FOUR YEARS! The Beaver Lake Cree Nation therefore took the issue to court recently in an effort to get the government to issue an emergency order aimed at protecting the endangered caribou in the Alberta tar sands region. Something the federal government had refused to do……and if you’re cynical I’m sure you can guess why?
What’s REALLY baffling about the government’s refusal is that they did so DESPITE conceding the following points:
- Caribou are threatened by habitat loss.
- All 13 herds of caribou in Alberta are at elevated risk of local extinction.
- The population and habitat conditions of all the herds in northeastern Alberta are “insufficient for those herds to be self sustaining”.
- There is a developing gap in caribou distribution in Canada centred around northeastern Alberta (the area of intensive tar sands activity).
- Alberta’s failure to protect caribou will likely have consequences for the national population of the species.
Thankfully the federal judge in Edmonton was equally baffled, saying:
"I acknowledge that it is not immediately apparent how, given the foregoing facts, the Minister reasonably could have concluded that there are no imminent threats to the national recovery of boreal caribou."
"…the Minister clearly erred in reaching his decision by failing to take into account the First Nations Applicants’ Treaty Rights and the honour of the Crown in interpreting his mandate under [the federal Species at Risk Act]."
The judge overruled the government’s decision, sent the Government off with its tail between its legs and gave the Environment Minister until 1st September to reconsider and produce the agreed recovery strategy. However, Federal Court Justice Paul Crampton hasn’t and won’t be telling Ottawa that they must issue the order once it is drafted.
So…..a victory of sorts in that the First Nations’ rights to have their way of life protected within the Dominion of Canada without conflict from lumbering or mining interests, as secured in the Royal treaty of 1876, will be in the spotlight and will perhaps get the attention they deserve. It remains to be seen what action the federal government takes next, but all of their actions to this point illustrate how unwilling they are to curtail the adverse environmental & cultural impacts in their pursuit of their oil barrels.
For the caribou however, a recovery strategy can’t come soon enough.