The future of Alberta’s Boreal woodland caribou: time for tough choices


Op-Ed 

Kelly Sloan
Executive Director, CPAWS Northern Alberta Chapter

Environment Canada recently was in Calgary to hear views from interested parties about its proposed draft “Recovery Strategy for Boreal Woodland Caribou” under the Species-At-Risk Act. Within weeks, the final strategy is expected.

Nowhere in Canada are woodland caribou in deeper trouble than in our province. For example, a herd in the Little Smokey region north of Hinton is on the verge of extinction. In the Athabasca region, the hotbed of oil sands and gas development, hundreds of woodland caribou face an equally uncertain future.

Our caribou are dying out.  Albertans should be concerned not just because these creatures are a symbol of Canada’s identity, but also because their presence in healthy numbers is a gauge of the health of our boreal forest – the very same forest that purifies our air and stores a large supply of fresh water, not to mention vast amounts of carbon.  When the boreal landscape is disturbed, carbon is released and contributes to global warming.

Healthy caribou herds indicate we are managing forests sustainably. The rapid decline of caribou throughout Alberta indicates we are not, and the world is watching. Canada’s boreal forest is one of the largest remaining intact forests in the world. As Albertans, we have a key responsibility as global citizens to protect that landscape. 


The federal government’s proposed recovery strategy correctly identifies human disturbance as the major cause of declining caribou populations.  However, we’re concerned that the government’s draft strategy would leave room for continued destruction of important boreal caribou habitat in Alberta.

It’s time to make some hard choices.  Alberta is an extraordinarily well-endowed province. But we should not be focused only on the most rapid track to short-term economic gain. If we want to leave a healthy environment, we need to take measures now that will ensure our long-term economic, ecological and social health.

There is strong scientific evidence that the primary cause of woodland caribou’s decline in Alberta is habitat loss due to human disturbance, notably oil and gas development, logging, mining, roads, seismic lines and transmission corridors. As caribou ranges are fragmented, it tips the balance in favour of predators such as wolves. 

Predator culling and prey control are not adequate to protect caribou if the landscape where they live is still interrupted by industrial corridors. That is what Environment Canada’s draft recovery strategy suggests for most Alberta herds which will not solve the problems we have created for the survival of this species, or for the future of a healthy boreal forest in Alberta.

The goal of the recovery strategy must be to achieve self-sustaining status for ALL local populations of boreal caribou in Canada, including Alberta.  This means giving caribou enough room to graze, mate and nurture their young, away from easy access by predators. As it stands, the federal government is considering exempting many of Alberta’s caribou populations from the requirement to be self-sustaining. The government is suggesting that the goal for the next 50 years should only be to stabilize caribou populations in most of Alberta, with no requirement for habitat protection or restoration.  This will leave Alberta’s caribou vulnerable to extinction.

We believe that industrial and forestry development can occur while still conserving habitat woodland caribou across the province.  In fact, this is already being demonstrated through our work with other conservation organizations and forestry companies in Alberta through the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Together we’re already working to strike a balance between landscape conservation and industrial development goals. 

It’s in everyone’s best interest to improve certainty in the management of woodland caribou populations in Alberta -- industry, conservation groups and government – not to mention the caribou.  In our view, the federal government needs to ensure landscape protection now for our wildlife, rather than punting the question down the road for future generations, when it will be too late for Alberta’s caribou and our boreal forest. 

Let’s make the tough decisions now, so that Albertans always have woodland caribou and a healthy boreal forest.