CPAWS Northern Alberta Expresses Deep Concerns Over Delayed Progress Reports on Alberta’s Woodland Caribou Recovery
Edmonton, AB – The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Northern Alberta Chapter (CPAWS NAB) is concerned over prolonged delay in receiving Alberta’s first progress report on caribou recovery. The Agreement, “Section 11 Agreement for the recovery of Woodland Caribou”, signed by the Governments of Alberta and Canada in October 2020 under the Species At Risk Act (SARA), aims to provide a comprehensive framework for range plans crucial to the long-term recovery of caribou. Regular reporting on progress is a key accountability measure included in the Section 11 agreement. Progress reports are expected to be released annually and yet, the 2021 report was just released publicly on January 19, 2024. The Government of Alberta has provided no timeline for when to expect the release of the 2022 and 2023 reports.
The information presented in these progress reports is essential for evaluating whether recovery actions for caribou are being implemented, and their effectiveness. A report with findings that are nearly 3 years old, is already too outdated to provide feedback on what an updated strategy should include. By delaying the release of this publicly funded information, Canadians are being kept in the dark about the recovery of a species at risk, and the extent of ongoing destruction of caribou habitat.
“The tardiness of the progress reports renders them nearly meaningless and raises serious concerns about the province’s sense of urgency over the fate of Alberta’s caribou population.” says Tara Russell, Program Director with CPAWS Northern Alberta, “It is disheartening to see the release so delayed, and even more concerning is the lack of substantive progress made in critical areas of caribou recovery actions outlined in the Section 11 Agreement.”
Key Concerns from the Progress Reports:
- Inadequate Undisturbed Habitat for Recovery: Undisturbed habitat, crucial for caribou recovery, is woefully inadequate in most caribou ranges, with concerning declines observed since 2010, and new disturbances continue to be approved. The only units with sufficient undisturbed habitat are the summer ranges, high alpine habitat, for the Red Rock Prairie Creek, and A La Peche caribou herds. Both of which overlap with designated protected areas including Jasper National Park, Willmore Wilderness Area, and Kakwa Wildland Provincial Park. But even these numbers for undisturbed habitat paint and overly rosy picture when not considered in tandem with the dismal level of disturbance in the winter range for these herds. Over the period 2010 to 2021 the percentage of caribou range covered by habitat disturbance increased in all ranges, except for Yates, and the A la Peche summer range.
- Dependency on Wolf Control for Population Stability: Unfortunately, the only herds with stable or marginally increasing populations are seven of the ranges where wolf population controls are in effect. This is indicative of a broader systemic issue in the recovery strategy. Undisturbed habitat has declined in nearly every caribou range. Those that have gained habitat is only due to regrowth from 40+ year old fires, not due to management changes. Most concerning is that the ranges with the least habitat, such as Little Smoky, Nipisi, Slave Lake, and Narraway have continued to lose habitat since 2010. Yet the recovery strategy indicates that the province expects to still be relying on wolf culls to prevent caribou populations from continuing to plummet rather than addressing the root cause of inadequate intact habitat.
- Inadequate Progress on Seismic Line Restoration: The slow progress in restoring seismic lines, with only 138 out of 250,000 km completed and 763 km of restoration initiated by 2021, is disappointing. The delay exacerbates the threat to caribou habitats.
- Limitations in Wildfire Planning: Caribou subregional planning fails to incorporate further disturbance of habitat from wildfires in the models used to predict future disturbance. Incorporating an expectation of wildfire disturbance would provide a more realistic limit to disturbance by industrial activities like forest harvesting.
- “Business As Usual” Industrial Activities: The reports outlines recommendations for changes to forest harvest practices that could improve habitat for caribou but does not indicate how those changes are to be implemented, raising concerns over business-as-usual habitat loss within caribou ranges. Additionally, the report reveals that 101 non-standard applications for industrial activity within caribou ranges were referred to Alberta Environment and Parks for comment between October 2020 and December 2021, raising significant concerns about approval rates for industrial activity that will further disturb habitat and impact caribou recovery.
“The insufficient undisturbed habitat in caribou ranges and the disappointing progress in restoration efforts underscore the urgency for robust conservation measures.” Adds Kecia Kerr, Executive Director with CPAWS Northern Alberta, “Protected areas must be a central component of all subregional plans to ensure the long-term survival and recovery of Woodland Caribou in Alberta. We have been disappointed to see plans released over the past few years that do not include new habitat protection despite the low level of protection in many of the ranges that is highlighted by this report.”
Without timely reports, it is unfeasible for organizations like CPAWS to hold the Government of Alberta accountable for caribou recovery. It is egregious to have been sitting on this data and we expect the 2022 and 2023 progress reports to be shared as soon as possible. When the Section 11 agreement was first released to the public, we were apprehensive over its lack of ambition and long-term reliance on wolf culls to stabilize caribou populations. Even so, this first report and the overall lack of fanfare over its release indicates that the relatively unambitious commitments in the agreement are not being met. The Government of Alberta must prioritize and expedite the implementation of recovery actions they committed to in the Section 11 Agreement, or we risk a future without Alberta’s Woodland Caribou.