Saving caribou, inch by inch
August 29, 2019
“Oh my god!”
The exclamation comes from the Program Coordinator at CPAWS Northern Alberta in our downtown Edmonton office.
“Did you know that there are caribou on the quarter!?” she asks, incredulous that she has only just realized this small detail about our 25-cent coin as she works to fact-check herself by investigating her change.
“Duh!” I exclaim, the on-site caribou expert, and suddenly every staff member is turning their pockets inside out to inspect their pocket change and Google searches abound (unearthing this 80’s educational video gem).
This is when it dawns on me that of all the conversations we have about caribou in our office (which are a lot), we somehow skipped all the fun parts and stopped learning about all their goofy quirks. For instance, did you know that female caribou grow antlers just like male caribou—they’re the only deer species that do this! Or, that their ankles click when they walk? In the Arctic, their migrations must sound like an orchestra of castanets!
Woodland caribou are an inspiring species that have captivated our hearts since we were young; growing up to stories of reindeer flying in the night skies (psst…reindeer = caribou!). It was only when I was older that I realized we had these charming critters throughout Canada, in almost every province and territory. Caribou evolved in our boreal forest where they have carefully adapted to hide from predators and other animals that attract predators. This strategy has served caribou very well… until recently. Decades of industrial development have disrupted the boreal forest and made it increasingly difficult for the caribou to stay out of reach of predators, resulting in population declines. Now, caribou have very few safe places left in the wild.
These days, when we hear about caribou in the news we often hear of management failures and staggering declines. Progress towards recovery has always been challenging—the province has gone through many iterations of plans for caribou recovery since the species was identified as Endangered by Alberta in 1986 – each without success in stemming the decline. But, here at CPAWS, we believe that with immediate action there is still hope for these animals.
Caribou recovery depends first-and-foremost on the protection and conservation of caribou habitat. Hard work towards this goal is ongoing across our province—but because progress is taken in small steps, it is not often that we hear the good news. To help with that, I’ve collected some feel-good projects that are working toward caribou recovery right now, that might not be familiar with:
In northwest Alberta, CPAWS Northern Alberta is collaborating with the Dene Tha’ First Nation on establishing an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA)—the first of its kind in Alberta. The IPCA would give the Nation a stronger hand in stewardship the lands, waters, and animals on their traditional territory, and provide permanent protection for caribou. The IPCA would create space for Indigenous communities to become actively involved in implementing recovery actions for the caribou that have been deeply intertwined with their history and culture.
Over in northeast Alberta and northwest Saskatchewan, a collaborative group of forestry companies and environmental organizations, including CPAWS Northern Alberta, is aiming to identify an effective network of conservation areas that can benefit the five caribou herds residing in the area (with considerations for many other species at risk too). The project area spans over 200,000 km2—roughly half the size of California!
Within this same region, the Cold Lake First Nation has drafted a five-year plan with the federal government to carry out monitoring, management, and restoration of caribou habitat within a portion of the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, allowing the Nation to carry out traditional practices to recover caribou in an area where they have not been permitted for decades.
Meanwhile, the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada has drafted a Conservation Agreement, hoping to change the future for these animals. What is this mysterious document? A Conservation Agreement is one tool in the federal toolbox to ensure steps are actually being taken to meet federal recovery targets.
Although Alberta’s Agreement marks an important step in recovery planning, improvements are needed. A few glaringly absent key actions include: concrete plans for permanently protecting caribou habitat, interim protective measures in ranges, and thresholds on future industrial development.
Instead, the Agreement focuses on a five-year timeline to develop range plans for every woodland caribou herd in Alberta. This means that range plans would not be completed until 2024, seven years past the original federal deadline. Year-to-year declines of caribou are staggering and many caribou herds are in such low numbers that the 2024 deadline may be too late to save them.
We should remember that, although range plans can be an effective tool, they are not the only measures we have to save caribou. The examples mentioned above highlight work that moves the dial on caribou conservation, alongside development and finalization of range plans. Governments need to be reminded that real action is needed now, and that many steps can be taken while we wait for range plans to be implemented.
Alberta’s woodland caribou are some of the most well-studied animals in Canada: their declines have been well-known and researched for decades. Alberta’s Conservation Agreement should be the most progressive and the most ambitious of any Agreement in the country…and yet, the draft Agreement is a lukewarm response.
Luckily, nothing is set in stone yet. The draft Conservation Agreement is currently open to public consultation until October 6, 2019.
This is the most effective opportunity for any single individual to affect change when it comes to caribou conservation in Alberta! Don’t miss out!
We encourage you to let our governments know that our caribou deserve more. We’ve made participation easy with our handy letter template!