All caribou in Alberta are threatened, says the Agreement for the Conservation and Recovery of the Woodland Caribou in Alberta (2020) (Caribou Agreement). One tool for conservation is subregional land use plans. Writing the Nipisi, Slave Lake, and West Side Athabasca caribou range (sub-regional) plans is scheduled to start in 2022. The practical application of the plan is scheduled to start for Nipisi and Slave Lake in 2024 and West Side in 2025. Making the Red Earth range sub-regional plan is set to start in 2023 and finalize in 2025, which is the end of the agreement.
Nipisi range is north of Slave Lake. The Slave Lake range is east and south. These are both small ranges. The other two are larger, the Red Earth one is north and east of Red Earth Creek. West Side Athabasca is between Wabasca and Fort McMurray.
Caribou live in every Canadian province and territory except the Maritimes, says naturecanada.ca. The Maritime populations died out in the 1920s.
There are 15 caribou populations on provincial land and another in Jasper National Park, says the Caribou Agreement.
Alberta’s Draft Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan (2017) (Range Plan) say “Caribou recovery in each caribou range depends on addressing habitat-related factors that result in both the loss of caribou habitat and increased predation. Alberta’s caribou ranges overlap important forest and energy resources that support local communities and the provincial economy. The Range Plan supports a working landscape approach where caribou and industrial activity co-exist, with careful planning and strict regulation, investment in aggressive restoration and innovative approaches, and careful monitoring of outcomes.”
“In 2019-20, $20.9 million was allocated to regional and sub-regional land-use planning,” says Alberta Environment and Park Annual Report 2019-20. “The ministry is committed to returning to a comprehensive, collaborative and integrative approach in regional and sub-regional planning to manage cumulative effects and achieve desired economic, societal and environmental goals for a region.”
“The species at risk results provide an important indication of the state of ecological integrity,” says the AEP Annual Report, “biodiversity on the landscape and ecosystem health. Species more sensitive to change can exhibit population decreases that can have cascading impacts on other species and ecosystem components and services, therefore signaling when special management and recovery actions are necessary.
“In 2015, 25 species out of a total of 601 (4.2 per cent) were identified as at risk, an increase from 3.7 per cent (22 out of 589 species) in 2010.”
Caribou are one of these sensitive species. Current numbers on nearby ranges aren’t available, but historic data gives an estimate.
The Status of the Woodland Caribou in Alberta (2010) includes population estimates from before 2005/2006. At that time, the estimated populations were Nipisi: 60 to 70 caribou, Slave Lake: 75, Red Earth: 250 to 300, and West Side Athabasca: 300 to 400, with a note that a “small part of range extends into Wood Buffalo National Park.”
Below are some specifics about local ranges from the Range Plan (2017).
Nipisi does not border any other range, and is 210,436 hectares. It is in the M.D. of Lesser Slave River, Northern Sunrise County, and the M.D. of Opportunity. Forestry and oil and gas are the main industries. In 2011, it was listed as “unlikely to be self-sustaining.” In 2017, the population trend was not available. Around that time, surveys for other reasons spotted at least 49 animals, but the actual population was unknown. From 2005 to 2017, female caribou had GPS collars.
“Nipisi caribou have occasionally been documented as travelling to and from the Red Earth and West Side Athabasca caribou ranges.”
As of 2017, the Nipisi ranges was 94 per cent disturbed by anthropogenic (human) footprint, eight per cent by wildfires in 40 years, and 95 per cent by a combination of the two.
In 2019, the McMillan Wildfire (222,837.20 hectares) was the largest fire to burn within the Slave Lake Forest Area. It burned an area between Wabasca and Slave Lake which extended from south of Highway 88 almost to Trout Lake. This impacted both the Nipisi and Red Earth Creek caribou ranges.
Referring to proposed sub-regional plans, the Range Plan says “within the Nipisi caribou range, access planning will be at a regional scale encompassing the entire caribou range and evaluating the potential to expand beyond range boundaries … Access management will consider areas adjacent to the Nipisi range and areas connecting to the Slave Lake, Red Earth, and West Side Athabasca River ranges.”
The Range Plan says, “The Slave Lake population are non-migratory boreal caribou, though some animals have been observed travelling to and from the Nipisi caribou range.” It is in the M.D. of Lesser Slave River and Woodlands County. It is 151,623 hectares. Prior to 2017, recent minimum counts in surveys with other focuses was 29 caribou. Like Nipisi, actual population and trends were not known. Female caribou were collared and monitored starting in 1983 until 2017.
The Slave Lake range had a footprint of 99 per cent anthropogenic, 37 per cent wildfire, and 99 per cent combined.
There were 2017 numbers for the West Side Athabasca range (1,572,652 ha), says the Range Plan. From 2012 to 2017, it continued to decline, as it has since 1999. Minimum counts were 133 caribou. It is in the M.D. of Opportunity and Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
The Caribou Agreement says “The overarching goal of this agreement is to support the conservation and recovery of woodland caribou local populations to naturally self-sustaining status, consistent with the population and distribution objectives and critical habitat outcomes outlined in the Recovery Strategies and aligned with A Woodland Caribou Policy for Alberta (2011).”
The Alberta and Canadian government agreed that the province will take the lead “in developing sub-regional plans that support caribou recovery and protect jobs,” says an Oct. 23 Alberta government news release.