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EDITORIAL: Woodland caribou will go extinct in our lifetime

One day we will all wake up to the news that there are no more caribou in Alberta with the knowledge that we could have prevented it all along if we actually wanted to. 

The extinction of woodland caribou from Canada is going to happen in our lifetimes and it is a tragedy that could have been prevented.

Another herd of caribou inside Jasper National Park has disappeared completely from the landscape.

It follows the disappearance of the last herd in Banff National Park and precedes the eventual loss of the other herds in Jasper due to their small size. 

Provincial and federal governments are failing to stop the slow march toward extinction this species is currently on – despite efforts to manage this crisis currently underway.

Parks Canada has the most to be ashamed about in this tragedy. The federal agency is mandated in law to protect ecological integrity and processes in the national parks.

Under its watch, woodland caribou have dwindled in numbers to the point the Tonquin and Brazeau herds left in Jasper won't survive without intervention – a fact Parks acknowledged with changes to its website. 

These are animals protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). A generation ago, there were more than 800 caribou in the mountain national parks. Fewer than 220 remain. 

Parks Canada is tasked with enforcing the act upon visitors and businesses inside the national parks system. A great example is the charges laid by the Crown against Lake Louise Ski Resort for destroying whitebark pine trees in 2016 – listed as endangered under SARA. 

The company pleaded guilty and was fined $2.1 million. It appealed the fine amount and lost.

Here's the rub – who will enforce these federal SARA regulations on the government itself and hold Parks Canada accountable for not doing enough to protect woodland caribou? 

Caribou reintroduction was included in the 2010 Banff National Park management plan. Is it being considered as part of the new 10-year plan currently in development? We don't know because Parks won't provide a spokesperson to answer questions about caribou. 

Alberta has a caribou management plan. You can tell how seriously the province takes its responsibility with respect to protecting this species at risk by the fact that in 2018 it suspended portions of the plan to benefit economic activity instead.

To its credit, the province of Alberta continues to announce millions of dollars in funding to protect caribou. Last November, it announced it would form three regional task forces focused on caribou recovery. Alberta has 15 herds of caribou and the work of the task forces is meant to focus on the ranges of the Bistcho, Cold Lake, Redrock-Prairie Creek and Narraway herds. 

But until this government, industry and Albertans actually commit themselves to taking this issue seriously and addressing the underlying cause of this extirpation in process – the loss of habitat – nothing will change. 

The industrial, resource extraction activity that occurs within caribou habitat ranges is the problem that needs solutions sooner rather than later. 

Access roads into woodland caribou habitat for resource extraction activity has opened up previously closed forests to wolves, which are natural predators for caribou. The problem is not new or unknown. The solution in British Columbia, and considered part of the plan in Alberta, is to kill the wolves to save the caribou.

This is not a solution that will result in improvements to this problem. 

Until the federal and provincial governments take this problem seriously and put resources and action behind the recovery of caribou, they will continue to slowly disappear from this province and country.

One day we will all wake up to the news that there are no more caribou in Alberta with the knowledge that we could have prevented it all along if we actually wanted to. 


Rocky Mountain Outlook

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