Caribou conservation deal between Alberta, federal government not enough First Nations say

‘Instead of fixing it, what they did, they gave it back to Alberta who was the cause of the problem, and it’s going nowhere.’

Several First Nations and environmental groups are calling on the Alberta and federal governments to do more when it comes to protecting caribou in the province.

In late October, after pressure to protect the declining herds, both the Alberta and federal governments signed an agreement to help the caribou, which these groups do not believe will work.

“Instead of fixing it, what they did, they gave it back to Alberta who was the cause of the problem, and it’s going nowhere,” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation chief Allan Adam told APTN News.

Adam said he doesn’t believe this agreement will help the caribou herds bounce back from their declining numbers.

“It’s just like how would you say? When the fox comes to the henhouse. It creates a lot of problems. But this time, it’s like us putting the hen house right where the fox is living so I don’t think it’s going to get any better,” he said.

In 2019, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Mikisew Cree First Nation, the Alberta Wildlife Association, David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice filed an application with the federal government to protect the caribou under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

The SARA act is used to prevent wildlife species in Canada from disappearing. The act provides recovery of wildlife that no longer exist in the wild, are endangered, or are threatened as a result of human activity. Under the act, the feds would have to work with Alberta to protect critical habitat for endangered species.

The federal and Alberta governments decided to work together as to avoid being forced to follow the SARA.

Legal action was filed by the First Nations and environmental groups in 2019 on behalf of Ecojustice to help improve caribou populations. It was discontinued earlier this year after the Minister of Environment and Climate Change informed them he would make a recommendation, which the federal government opted not to follow.

Under this new agreement, the federal government will not be using the SARA and they will not act themselves to protect the herds. Instead, they will help fund Alberta’s caribou plan.

But Chief Adam said that he does not expect any real action will be done.

“No one is going to do anything about it. It’s going to be forgotten in their system and we are going to be back again arguing about the same scenario,” he said.

Carolyn Campbell, conservation specialist with the AWA, said the new agreement has no teeth.

“At least the agreement gives a timeline, but there are no consequences if they miss it. That’s the problem, and meanwhile, there is ongoing forestry,” she said.

Campbell said it might be business as usual with oil and gas extraction, and clearcutting continuing to threaten the caribou herds.

“We don’t believe it is sustainable in supporting caribou and caribou’s declining populations.”

The new agreement between the federal and Alberta governments has short, medium- and long-term goals.

Within five years, the governments hope to deliver management actions for stable Woodland caribou growth to Little Smoky, A La Peche, Redrock/Prairie Cree, Narraway, Chinchaga, Cold Lake and the east side of the Athabasca River.

Within 10 years, the parties hope to have management actions in place to help stabilize populations and within 50 to 100 years have the caribou naturally achieve self-sustaining status.

Adam said he wants the federal government to sit down with Indigenous groups in the province.

“If the government is serious about working on this issue, they have to come and sit down with the First Nations in order to move this thing forward, because giving back to the province is just giving back trouble to them,” he said.

The overall goal of the agreement is to have Woodland caribou populations get to a point where they will be self-sustaining.

Conservation, management and recovery measures will be used to achieve this goal which includes landscape planning, mortality and population management and habitat monitoring.

Alberta caribou herds have been in decline for decades due to forestry, energy and other human impacts leading to decline in numbers.

Alberta’s caribou populations are threatened with only 15 herds left in the province with a total estimated population of about 2,000 animals.

Those herds are made up of two types of caribou, the Southern Mountain caribou and the Boreal caribou.

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