Last week, M.D. of Lesser Slave River council had a telephone conference set up with a couple of provincial government caribou range planners. The speaker volume was poor on this end, but the fellows on the other end seemed to hear the pent-up frustration and skepticism among certain councillors loud and clear.
As it turned out, Matt Morgan and George Duffy presented a picture that was far less apocalyptic than what some seemed to be expecting.
For example: The figure of 65 per cent of caribou habitat to be preserved does not mean that much of the traditional range of a herd can never be touched by industry. What’s proposed, said Duffy, is that at least that much of the range remains suitable for caribou at any one time. As forestry companies move their harvest around, and as replanted stands mature, the area would change, but the good habitat would stay within that 65 per cent figure.
Another thing: Duffy and Morgan pointed out there are thousands of kilometres of seismic lines, plus some pipeline corridors and well sites that are unproductive. Planting them in trees would do nothing to hurt the economy, but it would improve caribou habitat.
Who’s going to pay for it? asked councillor Brad Pearson.
Companies have an obligation to reclaim sites, Duffy said, but it doesn’t have to be right away. In some cases (Little Smoky herd), the government is paying for habitat reclamation off the top, and will collect the cost back from industrial partners over decades.
The government officials went into considerable detail on the state of the two caribou ranges closest to home – Nipisi and Slave Lake. These are highly fragmented areas, due to intensive oil and gas development (and other activity to a lesser degree) over the past 50 years. The Nipisi range is only five per cent undisturbed, and the Slave Lake herd’s range is even worse off – at two per cent. In the case of the Slave Lake range, 40 per cent of it was burned off by forest fires in the past decade or two.
In both cases, the herds number about 55 individuals, which puts them on the brink of being doomed. That’s exactly what they are, in councillor Garry Horton’s view.
“You guys are wasting your money!” he said. “You’re closing the barn door after the horse has gone!”
Morgan and Duffy respectfully disagreed with that; in any case, Duffy said, Alberta needs to come up with its own plan, or have one imposed by Ottawa.
“We don’t want that!” said councillor Robert Esau. Esau was one of the most skeptical voices on council early on in the presentation.
His view: habitat isn’t really the issue: it’s predation.
“I have a real problem when you want to take hamburger off my plate so you can feed a caribou to a bear or a wolf,” he said.
Duffy agreed predation is the biggest factor. Wolf culls are an option, but a very unpopular one. Also on the list of possibilities are enclosed calving areas. Also unpopular, he said.
Meanwhile, something can be done about habitat. Duffy said the Slave Lake herd area can be brought up to 36 per cent undisturbed status by reclaiming all the ‘legacy’ seismic lines, ‘redundant’ roads and observing 500-metre buffers.
In council’s agenda package was material from the Northern Alberta Elected Leaders (NAEL) expressing concern about what it calls the province’s ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to habitat protection. The NAEL has been making plenty of noise in recent months and years – its main fear being that caribou protection could end up hurting the forest industry. Morgan and Duffy were asked what they think of that.
“We work very closely with industry,” said Duffy.
Esau seemed pleased to hear that.
“We have to keep our communities viable,” he said.
More information on caribou range planning, and opportunities for online feedback, can be found online at talkaep.alberta.ca.