Alberta Environment and Parks addresses some of the concerns recently brought forward by municipalities on the province’s caribou strategic recovery plan.
Municipalities are particularly concerned about the definition of ‘disturbed area.’ It has led to angst among timber and energy companies, who believe it creates a barrier to industrial activity on the land.
Brian Makowecki, Alberta Environment and Parks’ acting executive director for planning, says the definition is out of the province’s control. The federal government has assigned the meaning of the term as the impact of a human-made footprint for a forest area.
Makowecki explains if there is a seismic line, road or cut block, that counts as a footprint. The disturbed area also includes a 500-metre area adjacent to the land in question, in all directions. The designation is all about showing how the dynamics of the forest have changed due to the human influence. This can affect the intersection between caribou and predators.
Under the guidelines, a forest area is no longer considered disturbed once there has seen at least 40 years of tree growth.
Once the right amount of time has passed, a disturbed area goes back to the bio-physical habitat classification. This is where caribou can carry out most of their life processes on the land. Makowecki explains that this usually only happens when the trees in the area are older.
The 40 years of growth is not necessarily set in stone. In some areas the wait could be 60 or 80 years depending on the area. The province uses 40 years as the rule of thumb.
“In different parts of the province, like as you go north, it takes longer for things to grow,” he says.
Another part of the time line has to do with the production of other prey to the area. White tail deer, moose or elk enter the area. As the population of those animals go up, so does the number of predators.
“So there would be more wolves on the landscape if there is more deer,” he says.
Once 40 years go by, the land becomes less useful for deer and the population will go down.
The time frame may change based the species of trees in the area. There are many variables as to how long a disturbed classification will last and Makowecki says there is no simple answer.
Another concern brought forward is a lack of open houses and such in the region.
There have been consultations with municipalities on this matter, as well as other types of stakeholders in the past year. Makowecki says there are not a lot of implications to municipalities but once the caribou spatial (caribou land area) plans are underway there will be more consultations.
At the strategy phase the province did open houses. Consultations were done in affected areas. Once the spatial plan phase starts, this may lead to another opportunity for consultation. Makowecki explains that the focus will be on areas that have spacial plans ready . He doesn’t think Slave Lake is on the list yet since there is no spacial plan for the area. That said, Makowecki did reach out to the town and expressed a willingness to include Slave Lake in the next phase.
“If that would be an interest to Slave Lake community representatives, we would be absolutely prepared to come to Slave Lake with that level of engagement,” he says.
Makowecki says the province plans to update the federal government in the spring. He hopes that there will be progress on a number of the spacial plans. As for finalization, he says that could come in early summer depending on how much can be accomplished.
The federal government originally listed boreal woodland caribou as a threatened species in 2003. Six years later, in 2009, the government released a scientific review to identify critical caribou habitat. In 2011 a scientific assessment of the habitat was released, followed by a recovery strategy a year later.
The federal government started the whole process under the Species at Risk Act. This means it had to come up with a recovery strategy. This was passed onto the provinces in 2012 to come up with their own range plans.
The provinces had a five-year-deadline to work within. That expired in 2017. Makowecki says the province is working hard to get out the documentation to show their commitment to caribou recovery.