Environmentalists criticize Alberta plan to help endangered woodland caribou

A Woodland caribou bull is shown in an undated handout photo.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, CPAWS - Mike Bedell

EDMONTON - Alberta's draft plan to try to help threatened woodland caribou recover in 15 different ranges prompted immediate criticism from environmental groups when it was released Tuesday.

The plan is in response to a federal deadline under the Species at Risk Act that passed in October.

"We have sent them to the federal government," Environment Minister Shannon Phillips told The Canadian Press. "There will be a lot of work with the federal government to determine the plan's adequacy.

"We think what we've done is put forward a credible and practical plan."

The province plans to spend more than $85 million in the next five years to restore caribou habitat by eliminating seismic lines, building rearing facilities and other measures. The cash includes $9.2 million already spent on recovery efforts.

Restoration work has already started in the Little Smoky and A La Peche caribou ranges, where seismic lines are being deactivated and trees are being planted.

Jonathan Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary for federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, said he's been meeting with the provinces on the caribou file.

"We're obviously digesting all of the elements of the plan but ... from the federal government's perspective, it's a good step forward," he said. "We're very happy to see Alberta come forward with a plan."

Wilkinson said the federal government is encouraged the province has met with industry, First Nations and environmental groups to take a holistic approach to caribou recovery.

But environmental groups say the plan won't meet the requirements of the Species at Risk Act.

"Today's release of incomplete range plans for woodland caribou is Alberta's second missed deadline to meet a legal requirement to protect caribou habitat," said Simon Dyer, regional director for Alberta at the Pembina Institute.

He said the province has five years to finalize specific plans, yet the document doesn't demonstrate how caribou habitat will be protected.

"Given Alberta's deficient plan, we call on the federal government to step in and recommend protection of critical habitat for caribou in Alberta," said Dyer.

Carolyn Campbell, conservation scientist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, said the plan doesn't go far enough to meet federal requirements.

"It doesn't seem as though we've made some of the tough decisions and analysis that could provide for forestry and energy, but making sure they respect caribou's minimum requirements," she said. "Right now, there's still an intention to keep disturbing inside caribou range for forestry and that's deadly for caribou."

Phillips said she appreciates the concerns, but noted the government has to balance the environment with the economy.

"Proposing thousands of job losses in northwest Alberta is not an approach that the province is going to take," she said. "A number of these places are working landscapes, and that's why we put forward a number of resources for restoration and for other approaches in some of the ranges.

"There are areas where it is simply not practical to walk into a community and propose hundreds of job losses, or even thousands."


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