2024 May Newsletter

June 4, 2024
By: CPAWS Northern Alberta

2024 May Newsletter

Dear Reader,

The plight of caribou continues as these four-legged friends are making the rounds in the news. A spotlight on caribou conservation and the state of caribou habitat throughout the country can feel like a double-edged sword: while we are encouraged to see more coverage of caribou and awareness of concerns that are not unique to them, the content of the news about caribou continues to show how dire the situation is for caribou and the ongoing urgent need for action.

This month’s edition is a focus on caribou and their conservation, or lack thereof, in Alberta. We know that continuing to hear how difficult things are for caribou can be tough, so we’ve also included fun facts about the species, adorable photos, new research and updates on inter-governmental conservation efforts – we hope you’ll find something to your liking.


Why we love caribou

Caribou play a vital role in the survival of ecosystems and surrounding communities. They are considered an umbrella or indicator species, meaning their overall health and presence are indicative of a healthy, mature boreal forest. Not only does a thriving boreal forest mean sustaining a variety of species (hellooooo biodiversity!!!) and provision of essential ecosystem services that are key to the health of our communities, but healthy boreal forests are also a crucial nature-based climate solution, because they are huge carbon sinks. Caribou and many other boreal forest inhabitants are also adorable. (Yes, we are scientists and conservationists, but we are NOT immune to adorable wildlife!)

Click here for an overview of caribou conservation in Alberta


Caribou Conservation at the Federal and Provincial level: Who’s doing what

Conservation of species at risk can get tricky when we consider the different roles and jurisdictions that governments hold. For example, caribou within National Parks are managed by Parks Canada which falls under Federal jurisdiction. Caribou that live on Alberta’s public lands fall under provincial jurisdiction. However, once a species is listed under SARA (the Species at Risk Act) recovery of the species is a joint effort between federal and provincial governments.

Caribou conservation agreements are failing caribou

Section 11 is a provision under the Species at Risk Act that allows for the federal government to form partnerships for the recovery of a species. Section 11 agreements can be made with any entity, including provincial, territorial or Indigenous governments, local communities, or even a company. To date, there are agreements with provincial governments, First Nations, and a tri-partite agreement among the federal, BC provincial, and two First Nations governments.

Recently, progress reports were released on work conducted or advancements made under existing Section 11 agreements between the federal government and the provinces of Alberta and Ontario. The reports highlighted how these agreements are failing to protect and recover threatened caribou populations.

Despite the existence of these agreements, federal directives to implement a limit for habitat disturbance have not been met. All of Alberta’s 15 caribou ranges on provincial public lands continue to surpass the maximum 35 per cent disturbed habitat threshold outlined in the federal recovery strategy and, shockingly, six ranges have less than 10 per cent undisturbed habitat remaining.

Habitat disturbance continues to increase. Alberta continues to approve expanding industrial disturbance — even in ranges that have just a sliver of remaining undisturbed habitat. Several of the ranges have zero formal protection of habitat (see graph below from the GoA’s Progress Report released in January 2024).

Read the full release here.

Figure A3.1. Percent of lands designated for protection under provincial legislation in caribou ranges (including local populations and seasonal ranges). Source: Government of Alberta. 2024. First report on the implementation of the section 11 agreement for the conservation and recovery of the woodland caribou in Alberta. Page 47.
Figure A3.1. Percent of lands designated for protection under provincial legislation in caribou ranges (including local populations and seasonal ranges). Source: Government of Alberta. 2024. First report on the implementation of the section 11 agreement for the conservation and recovery of the woodland caribou in Alberta. Page 47.

Built for Winter

Caribou are quite well adapted to a frigid, snowy landscape. Their hollowed- out hooves are sharp enough to break through thick ice to search and scoop up lichen- which is a staple in their diet. The width of their hooves act like snowshoes, helping them navigate their unique landscape across seasons, such as staying atop heavy winter snow or traversing soft, squishy, wetlands in spring. Along with thick coats filled with hollow hairs that are incredibly efficient at trapping heat, their large hooves are also covered in small hairs to help with warm and grip when crossing over slippery slopes. They also have small hairs on their tips of their noses to warm up frigid air before it is inhaled.


 Addressing the Impact of Wildfires on Caribou Recovery

The 2023 wildfires were and continue to be a standout in public conversation across the country. Many studies and analyses have now been released detailing wildfire’s impact on communities, landscapes, and wildlife populations.

According to the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Insitute’s (ABMI) recent report, Effects of 2023 Wildfires in Alberta, the 2023 forest fires season was one of the most intense in recent history – 6.6 % of forested area burned across all ages and types of forests.

Alarmingly, the 2023 wildfires burned 5.2% of preferred woodland caribou habitat across the province, including 12.7% of preferred habitat in the Bistcho range, and 13.7% of preferred habitat in the Caribou Mountains range. These burns represent enormous impact on habitat for herds that were already well below the minimum amount of undisturbed habitat necessary for caribou recovery (65%).

From ABMI’s report, we know that substantial amounts of caribou habitat have burned from wildfire, and we know that the boreal forest is a fire-driven ecosystem. Wildfire disturbance is a given in the boreal, and yet, the Government of Alberta’s Sub-Regional Plans, which are meant to provide a path to caribou recovery (more on Sub-regional Plans below), do not account for it in their disturbance models or targets. We go into further detail about this in our blog.

Our recommendation is that there should be adjustments made to targets for disturbance so that the inevitable impact of wildfire is accounted for. Without this provision, the amount of industrial disturbance within caribou range will continue to exceed what caribou can live with, and recovery plans will be overly optimistic and ultimately unachievable.

Read our blog post “Addressing the Impact of Wildfires on Caribou Recovery: A Call for Action”


Sub-Regional Plans: How does caribou habitat “compete” with other land uses

The answer is that it is often very difficult for caribou habitat to truly be a priority within Sub-Regional Plans. By tackling one or two herd ranges at a time through the creation of ‘Sub-Regional Plans” Alberta is meant to be laying a foundation for coordinated industrial use of the landscape and caribou habitat protection and restoration. The plans are well behind schedule and the opportunity to provide public feedback on sub-regional plans is seemingly sparse. Learn more about sub-regional plans here.

Draft regulations for TWO sub-regional plans are currently open for public comment: the Cold Lake sub-regional plan and the Bistcho Lake sub-regional plan. The surveys are available through the government of Alberta and the deadline to comment is June 6.

These surveys seem like they require a lot of background knowledge to fill out and can feel inaccessible. However, we encourage anyone who would like to express your support for increased actions for caribou conservation to fill them out. You can comment on general principles if you don’t feel that you can comment on the specifics of the regulations. If you are not up to fill out the surveys but would still like to take action for caribou:

Please email the Minister of Environment and Protected Areas ([email protected]) and [email protected] and cc ([email protected]).

Here are a few points to include:

  • Conservation and restoration is key to caribou survival and actions must be implemented with urgency. The Bistcho and Cold Lake sub-regional plans do not include new habitat protections and restoration is proceeding at a pace that is much too slow to reach necessary levels of undisturbed habitat over the next 100 years.
  • Allowable disturbances within caribou habitat must account for wildfire risk.
  • Progress for caribou is happening MUCH too slowly. The draft regulations for the only two subregional plans that have been completed took two years to be released. This means that the plans have not even been implemented.
  • Caribou conservation is an opportunity for Alberta to align itself with the United Nations Global Biodiversity Framework to halt and reverse biodiversity loss.

Taking action for species at risk at the individual and governmental level is key to aligning ourselves with a global strategy to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. We know that conservation action leads to higher biodiversity outcomes. Let’s keep pushing for meaningful conservation action.

As you can see below, caribou ranges in Alberta are overrun with disturbance and for the species to recover and thrive, urgent action is needed. 

(Left: caribou ranges in alberta with wildfire disturbance since 1960; Right: caribou ranges with seismic lines, oil and gas, forestry and wildfire disturbance)
(Left: caribou ranges in alberta with wildfire disturbance since 1960; Right: caribou ranges with seismic lines, oil and gas, forestry and wildfire disturbance)

How to tell caribou and elk apart

Although from afar, Caribou and Elk may be hard to tell apart, here are some ways to decipher which Alberta species you’re looking at (and how to impress your friends and family with your species identification skills)!

Caribou and elk can be distinguished by their antler shape. Caribou have much larger “C” shaped antlers and elk will have longer antlers with pointed ends. In addition, elk have longer legs than caribou. Side by side, caribou have much wider snouts.


New Research on Caribou

Recent research on caribou recovery efforts across western Canada highlight the complicated nature of widespread recovery efforts, and the dire state of caribou populations.

We recommend looking at these two new research papers:

Climate change has wide reaching impacts, and a recent paper (Dickie et al, 2024) highlights the added complications it has for caribou recovery. The study found that in some populations warmer winters with less snow are causing increases in whitetailed deer overlap with caribou range. More deer in caribou range results in more wolves in caribou range, meaning more predation on caribou.

Another recent paper highlighted the impacts of the wolf cull in caribou habitat in BC and Alberta, finding that ranges where predator reductions were occurring, caribou population declines were halted (Lamb et al, 2024).

Importantly, both papers conclude that habitat conservation and restoration is crucial to secure populations in the long term.


Take Action

Share your support for National Urban Parks

Email your MLA to let them know you support National Urban Parks and would like to see Alberta be a part of a national network of urban parks.

Take Action

Protect the Wilderness

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