Questions & Answers

Here are some common questions and answers about the effects of caribou habitat protection in Alberta.

Aren’t the federal and some provincial governments rushing to develop caribou range plans?
No. There have been decades of delay on habitat recovery actions we already know are needed to prevent caribou extinction. For forty years, Alberta scientists’ research has shown that caribou populations would fall significantly if we failed to limit total surface disturbance in caribou home ranges. In 2011, scientists advised that Alberta caribou should be classified as ‘endangered’ (under imminent threat of extinction in Alberta). The provincial government delayed range-wide actions to maintain and recover habitat. Time is running out, it is now very urgent to act, while we still have caribou and before we lose any more habitat.
Won’t caribou plans deprive indigenous and other local communities of socio-economic development opportunities?
Both caribou and resource jobs will disappear if resource management does not change quickly to ensure healthy forests for generations to come. The time to choose sustainable forest jobs, healthy caribou and healthy communities is now. Indigenous and local communities, industry and conservation groups should participate in choosing the strongest socio-economic actions that achieve caribou range requirements of at least 65% undisturbed habitat.
Isn’t the problem facing caribou really just climate change?
Climate change does add pressure on northern forest ecosystems, but this only increases the reasons to protect and restore caribou habitat now. Caribou population recovery is both technically and biologically feasible, according to scientists. The key reason why Alberta caribou have declined is habitat loss:  decades of excessive clearcut logging and energy surface disturbance have robbed them of their ability to avoid predators. Caribou habitat recovery can help forests be more resilient to climate change, by reducing fragmentation and loss of older forests and wetlands.
Aren’t all the wolves and other predators a bigger problem than habitat?

The root cause of excessive caribou predation by wolves and other predators is fragmented and degraded habitat in caribou ranges. Cutblocks and poorly reclaimed seismic lines and well pads stimulate deer, moose and wolf populations. This creates easy access to caribou by predators and robs caribou of their ability to avoid overlap with predators they’ve co-existed with for thousands of years. In Alberta’s most disturbed ranges, the dire measure of predator culls can only be justified as a temporary, last resort measure combined with strong habitat protection and restoration.

Shouldn’t it be good enough for companies to follow ‘best practice’ operating guidelines?
Unfortunately not as things stand. Alberta caribou populations are declining almost everywhere that operating guidelines are in place. Instead, caribou home ranges urgently need coordinated plans that include protected areas, restoration and careful access management. Alberta has solid research showing current project-level industrial guidelines are inadequate as a sole tool in Alberta. 1999 boreal research was confirmed in 2008 and 2009 Alberta Caribou Committee research and the government’s 2010 status report.
Don’t current forestry practices require that every hectare that is harvested be regenerated?
In fact, we know that Alberta’s current forest management rotation plans  will leave too few older forests more than 100 years old, and these older forests have high biodiversity values for caribou and many other species. Surge clearcuts prescribed since 2006 in western Alberta forests as a mountain pine beetle strategy, including the forests in many caribou ranges, will make Alberta’s forestry practices even less sustainable. And neither provincial forest management plans, nor external certification systems, deal with the excessive cumulative impacts of forestry, energy sector surface disturbance and other habitat fragmentation in Alberta’s caribou ranges.
Isn’t fire a bigger cause of habitat loss than human disturbance?
In most Alberta ranges industrial disturbance far outweighs fire, but yes, fire is the main source of habitat loss in a few. That makes it even more important for us to minimize human disturbance in those ranges. And we need fire suppression in caribou protected areas.
Isn’t it hopeless, if caribou can’t even make it in the pristine Banff and Jasper national parks?
The basic habitat problems are the same even for herds that make the parks their home. Unlike boreal woodland caribou of northern Alberta, these are mountain caribou that need to migrate safely from the mountains (in summer) to foothills (in winter). During the 20th century, their foothills winter grounds outside the parks were blocked and fragmented by roads and industrial development. Inside the parks, artificially high elk populations together with roads and trails into some key caribou areas made caribou predation by wolves far easier. We’ve known for over 40 years that these caribou also travel between Alberta and BC. With so much development close to park boundaries and little inter-provincial cooperation, it should be no surprise that caribou in the parks are declining.
Isn’t it hopeless, if caribou are declining even in Caribou Mountains Wildland Provincial Park?

Habitat disturbance in the Caribou Mountains range explains the declines. As of 2011, fire disturbance affected 44% of the range, and human-caused disturbance affected 23%, for a total of 57% disturbed. The best science suggests caribou need at least 65% undisturbed habitat to have even a 60% chance of being self-sustaining. For the Caribou Mountains population, it’s important to

  • avoid new human disturbance in their range,
  • suppress fires,
  • carefully manage access, and
  • support jobs to properly reclaim as much human-caused disturbance as possible, including reclaiming old unused seismic lines.
Won’t the three proposed protected areas recommended by mediator Denhoff’s 2016 report shut down northwest communities?

The three proposed northwest Alberta protected areas (in Forest Management Units F10, F20 and P8) do not overlap with existing forestry. Unlike other public lands, protected areas can be designed to have no new industrial forestry impacts, and to have an energy industry surface footprint that is limited to existing tenures and then phased out. The proposed protected areas will achieve the most protection of caribou range for the least socio-economic cost to northwest communities. Both caribou and resource jobs will disappear if resource management does not change quickly to ensure healthy forests for generations to come.

If Alberta grizzlies can recover on ‘working landscapes,’ then can’t caribou as well?
Woodland caribou need relatively undisturbed old growth forests and wetland complexes in their home ranges, to minimize overlap with predators. Grizzlies are wide-ranging omnivores that adapt to many vegetated land covers, and greatly benefit if direct human conflicts are reduced. Caribou habitat recovery won’t hinder grizzly populations, but grizzly recovery requirements aren’t enough for caribou.
Aren’t caribou plans being developed from poor or incomplete science?

No. Forty years of Alberta scientists’ research has shown that caribou populations cannot tolerate significant industrial surface disturbance. The current best available standard is that Alberta’s boreal woodland caribou home ranges must be at least 65% undisturbed for caribou to have even a 60% chance of recovering and surviving. In 2012, the Forest Products Association of Canada and other members of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement released a caribou framework: they all agreed that uncertainty should not delay actions, and they agreed to take a precautionary approach for caribou when choosing actions. There is overwhelming evidence that Alberta caribou urgently require home range habitat to be maintained and restored.

Who is working to save caribou?

Caribou across Canada are in crisis, with many herds facing extinction due to decades of neglect. The governments and resource companies responsible for their protection are not getting the job done, failing to set aside the habitat crucial to their survival and recovery. The organizations listed here are among the leaders campaigning to save caribou along with many First Nations. Visit their websites, inform yourself and please get involved. Thank you.

Harmony Foundation

This website is supported by funding from the Harmony Foundation, The Calgary Foundation and Alberta Wilderness Association.

Exposed Wildlife Conservancy