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Dwindling caribou herds in Alberta, B.C. face dire threat: federal government

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EDMONTON, A.B. –  The federal government is one step away from moving in to protect dwindling caribou herds in Alberta and British Columbia after finding them under imminent threat.

The finding, released by Environment Canada on Friday covers 10 herds in the Southern Mountain population. They are all smaller than 100 animals and continue to decline. Seven are in British Columbia and the rest are all or partly in Alberta.

“Immediate intervention is required to allow for eventual recovery,” says a department document.

The finding obliges the environment minister to ask cabinet to issue an emergency protection order under the Species At Risk Act if the two provinces don’t do enough to remove threats to the herds’ recovery.

Emergency protection orders allow Ottawa to control activity on critical habitat that is normally governed by the provinces. That would include energy development, forestry and agriculture.

The federal government has used the power twice before for the western chorus frog and the sage grouse. The protection order for the grouse affected the drilling plans of several Alberta energy companies.

The ministry’s analysis was being done as court actions from conservation groups sought to push Environment Minister Catherine McKenna into enforcing provisions of the law, said her parliamentary secretary Jonathan Wilkinson.

“In the short term, what it means is that we need to go and have conversations with the governments of British Columbia and Alberta and relevant stakeholders to discuss how we actually move forward,” he said. “There is a high degree of urgency.”

There is, at most, a few months to do the work, said Wilkinson.

“If we don’t act, somebody will go to court and the courts will certainly find the minister has a requirement to go to cabinet.”

Another finding released earlier this week said the provinces are failing to adequately protect critical habitat for woodland caribou as well. It concluded the provinces don’t require their regulatory bodies to follow federal environmental legislation.

Friday’s release acknowledges Alberta and B.C. are taking some steps to help the herds, but concludes they aren’t doing enough.

“Such measures are not currently complemented by the significant habitat protection or restoration measures necessary to improve the likelihood of recovery in the long term.”

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said she knew the finding was coming.

“We are in a situation where the courts are beginning to lose their patience with the federal government,” she said. “That is why Alberta must demonstrate progress.”

Phillips was just back from leading an industry-heavy delegation to Ottawa to discuss restoring caribou habitat. The federal government promised financial help for a socio-economic study and emergency management actions such as caribou maternity pens and wolf culls.

She acknowledged that decades of logging and drilling have left some caribou ranges unlikely to be able to support healthy herds for decades to come. But other herds are in better shape.

“It is not true that all is lost,” she said.

Caribou habitat has been so damaged by decades of industry presence that wildlife managers must resort to extreme measures while they rehabilitate thousands of square kilometres of seismic lines, cut blocks, well pads and resource roads.

Meanwhile, local communities have come to rely on current levels of industry to sustain them.

Phillips blames the situation on decades of inaction by previous Alberta governments.

“We went through about 25 years of the previous government doing precisely nothing, sweet tweet, on this file.”

(THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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