Alberta unveils two new land use plans to achieve caribou recovery
March 29, 2021
Edmonton – The Government of Alberta has released two draft plans for caribou recovery in the northeast and northwest of the province, encompassing two herds of Threatened woodland caribou. Alberta’s caribou have been waiting for almost a decade for these sub-regional range plans under the Species At Risk Act (SARA), while experiencing ongoing declines on some of the most busy landscapes in the country.
The Cold Lake and Bistcho sub-regional plans are meant to address immediate and long-term habitat and population objectives for caribou recovery, while also supporting positive local economic, environmental, social, and recreational outcomes. CPAWS Northern Alberta supports the Cold Lake sub-regional plan, which makes several positive commitments to caribou conservation.
“We are glad to see both plans forecast meeting the 65% undisturbed habitat threshold inside the caribou ranges, though the plans only project achieving this outcome in 100 years,” says Dr. Kecia Kerr, Executive Director of CPAWS Northern Alberta, describing the 65% minimum undisturbed habitat threshold set by the Government of Canada.
“Caribou have been waiting a long time for management plans that shift away from business-as-usual,” says Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Manager with CPAWS Northern Alberta. “The Cold Lake draft plan is promising, but in order for it to be a success, it needs to be implemented with urgency. Immediate change from business-as-usual is needed.”
One of the exciting solutions offered in the sub-regional plans is the introduction of Access Management Plans (AMPs) to manage the existing road network and plan for future road development in the sub-regions. Access will be managed using road density limits and wetland disturbance limits. The use of an AMP will be particularly beneficial in busy industrial landscapes such as the Cold Lake sub–region.
However, planning of future access should prioritize environmental outcomes to turn around the long-term declining trend for caribou and other species, which means AMPs should recognize both areas where access is needed and not needed.
“We are particularly concerned to see the Bistcho Lake AMP would allow road access into core caribou habitat that does not have active industrial activities,” Dr. Kerr adds. “In the vast majority of the Bistcho range, the management focus should be on restoring legacy disturbances and leaving high-value areas for caribou intact.”
The draft plans come just over a year since the Government of Alberta announced the creation of Caribou Task Forces to help guide long-term recovery planning for caribou across different areas of the province. CPAWS Northern Alberta was invited to participate on the Task Forces, helping craft recommendations for the draft plans (recommendation reports: Bistcho Lake here and Cold Lake here).
The Task Forces included representatives from First Nations, Métis communities, local municipalities, the energy sector, the forestry sector, recreational groups, and trappers. At the Task Force tables, CPAWS advocated for a strong focus on habitat-based solutions in caribou range and strong environmental outcomes throughout the sub-region.
There is sadly an obvious absence of commitments to legislated protections for caribou habitat and Indigenous-led conservation in either of the plans. Indigenous-led conservation must be a strong tenet of caribou conservation to achieve success. Unfortunately, these plans do little to support Indigenous-led conservation initiatives.
Alberta has committed to completing sub-regional plans for the remaining 13 caribou herds in the next three years. With caribou herds in steady decline across the province, strong sub-regional plans must be put into action as soon as possible.
The provincial government is now holding a 60-day public consultation for these two proposed plans. We encourage participation in both public consultations, especially if you are familiar with the sub-region and care about the future of caribou in Alberta.
You can view the draft sub-regional plans and participate in the public consultation before May 29 here (Bistcho Lake) and here (Cold Lake). Keep an eye out for comment guides from CPAWS very soon to help facilitate participation.
Three sub-regional planning areas in Alberta. The Bistcho Lake and Cold Lake sub-regional planning areas are shown in purple and pink. →
Why are Sub-regional Plans Important?
In 2012, the federal government provided evidence-based habitat and population objectives in the national recovery strategy for woodland caribou. One of these objectives was to achieve 65% undisturbed habitat in every caribou range: this target would provide caribou a ‘likely’ chance of becoming naturally self-sustaining. CPAWS Northern Alberta believes in achieving this objective and strongly advocates for range plans to focus on habitat-based measures, such as protecting, conserving and restoring caribou habitat.
Under the Species at Risk Act, the province is legally required to produce a range plan that will meet the federal recovery strategy standards. In 2020, Alberta and Canada signed a Conservation Agreement of Woodland Caribou that committed to producing range plans for all caribou ranges in the province by 2024.