Comparing Territories: Tar Sands Blanket Caribou Habitat


As the controversy surrounding Canada’s proposed wolf cull in Alberta grows, the provincial government is attempting to limit criticism directed at the country’s polluting Tar Sands – the prime driver behind the region’s rapid decline in caribou populations.  Alberta’s Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) is the government body responsible for, not surprisingly, sustainable management of the province’s natural resources, but interestingly SRD lumps disparate things – like caribou and bitumen – together.  

As public concern increases over the SRD’s mismanagement of Alberta’s caribou herds (10 of the 13 monitored herds are experiencing decline), government spokespeople have had to work overtime to conceal the role the Tar Sands have to play in this enduring resource debacle.

DeSmogBlog has covered the extensive government-industry collusion behind Alberta’s botched caribou recovery strategies, demonstrating the extent to which the entire process is dominated by a single economic imperative – oil and gas development in, most notably, the Tar Sands. The government, however, has downplayed the role the Tar Sands have to play in the mass disappearance of Alberta’s caribou, choosing instead to place the blame squarely on the wolf.  

SRD spokesman Dave Ealey has been working the defensive for months, telling sources like the LA Times that wolf control in Alberta is unrelated to the Tar Sands. And while this argument may hold when addressing the wolf cull near Hinton, Alberta in the Little Smoky caribou range (where caribou are affected by conventional oil and gas production), it does not accurately portray the overall situation in Alberta. 
To get a feel for the overlap between caribou habitat and Tar Sands development, compare the maps (sourced from here and here) below:

Ealey recently told DeSmogBlog in an email that “there have been numerous reports about a so-called cull of wolves in the oil sands area. There is no such initiative underway or planned,” emphasis his.

A very cautious word choice. The point is, however, that a wolf cull is underway, just not directly within the designated Tar Sands regions. A further point would be that a provincial cull – one that stretches to caribou habitat in the Tar Sands region – is currently being proposed.

Ealey’s statement runs into direct contradiction with his remark to Edmonton journalist Ed Struzik that an expansion of the cull to caribou ranges across Alberta is currently on the table. Environment Minister Peter Kent took the suggestion even further with his comment on the federal caribou recovery strategy, saying, “predator control has been chosen.”
According to Struzik, this crisis situation has been a long time coming.
“The recovery program really has been going on for more than 30 years. In fact, one of the first stories I did in Alberta was about 30 years ago, about an aerial survey of the Grand Cache/Jasper area with a biologist who said, ‘unless we do something soon we’re going to loose these babies.’ And that story’s been continuously repeating itself over and over – except the situation is getting worse, sort of like a domino effect: its that herd and then another herd and then another herd,” Struzik told DeSmog.
For Struzik, the outlook is grim: “Now there’s pretty clear evidence that all the herds are in trouble. Oil and gas and forestry developments have really carved up that landscape.” The wolf cull, he says, doesn’t bode well for the wolves or the caribou.
“The only thing they have done is initiate a wolf cull which is really just a stop gap measure to stop the bleeding. Its not a solution to the problem. Its perhaps – according to some scientists – one of the solutions but its not the long term solution. That’s all they seem to be doing right now – is to cull wolves to try to protect caribou, at least in the Grand Cache area, and now there’s talk of expanding that cull to other areas so we may actually see an expansion of that program very early down the road,” Struzik said.
The current caribou recovery strategy creates massive opportunities for industry to sidestep productive measures to protect caribou. The proposal even allows that critical habitat “may be decreased…should jurisdictions provide a plan that will support stabilized local populations through the use of mortality and habitat management tools.”
This means wolf control is widely available as a caribou recovery strategy, without critical habitat protection, so long as jurisdictions ‘provide a plan.’
But a chronic lack of planning seems to be a part of the root problem here. And as DeSmogBlog recently reported, both government and industry in Alberta have refused to engage in critical habitat protection, while being fully aware of escalating caribou problems.
As Struzik put it, Alberta’s industry simply ignored caribou as a relevant issue.
“It was caribou that were never really part of the management equation as the oil sands – and not just oil sands, but all energy development and forestry development – expanded in this province. Caribou were the kind of inconvenient truth, for lack of a better term, that nobody really wanted to deal with.”
The attempt to separate out the Tar Sands from the wolf cull is misleading and distracts from the larger picture the caribou decline is pointing to: the effect of our addiction to oil has on the landscape and the life that land supports. Support for the wolf cull and the Tar Sands, in large part, rely on precisely this kind of misinformation.  
Struzik feels that without a strong public display of opposition, the problem is likely to worsen.
“I am a journalist and therefore I am not in a position to take sides or influence public policy. That’s for society to decide. So far though, there has never been a very strong outcry to stop this. Until that happens, then caribou and wolves will continue to be an inconvenient truth. I would also say that there are signs that industry does want to deal with this. But until someone takes the lead, be it government or industry, I suspect the status quo will prevail.”
If you are interested in learning more about this issue, watch DeSmogBlog’s recent investigative documentary “Cry Wolf: An Unethical Oil Story.” 

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