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Caribou Plan Misses the Mark: Experts

Environment Canada, court-ordered to craft a caribou protection plan, have come up short, experts say, by proposing that their predators, wolves, be culled rather than that the habitat be preserved.
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The federal government has come up with a plan to save Alberta’s caribou to comply with a court order, but rather than guard the animals' habitat, it protects oil sands development by focusing on culling wolves to reduce the number of predators, earning low marks from First Nations leaders and environmental proponents.

Stemming from a July 29 court order, the plan was mandated by the Federal Court of Canada, which found that federal environment minister Peter Kent broke the law by refusing to recommend an emergency order for woodland caribou in Alberta. The suit had been brought by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Beaver Lake Cree Nation and Enoch Cree Nation.

Justice Paul Crampton ruled that Kent had failed “to take into account the First Nations’ applicants’ treaty rights and the honour of the Crown” when it came to interpreting his mandate under the federal Species at Risk Act. He gave Kent and the environment ministry until September 1 to come up with a plan.

The plan that the government released during the last week of August doesn’t include protecting the caribou’s habitat so much as reducing the number of predators to keep caribou numbers up. Further, it does not curb industrial development, thus allowing oil companies to rake through the animals’ habitual roaming grounds, cutting down swaths of boreal forest to extract oil from the notorious oil sands. So low are the animals’ numbers now that the provincial government is considering adding caribou to its own endangered list.

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"By allowing 95 per cent of woodland caribou habitat in northeastern Alberta to be lost, the Government of Canada is proposing that Canadians 'write off' virtually all the habitat that supports Alberta's caribou herds in order to promote irresponsible levels of oil sands development,” said Simon Dyer, a policy director with the Pembina Institute, an environmental group that is also pushing for caribou protection. "The federal government is ignoring options to protect and restore caribou habitat in northeastern Alberta, and instead proposing to rely on killing off wolves to avoid having to put a limit on oil sands development."

Boreal caribou have been on Canada’s Threatened list for some time, according to Environment Canada, having dropped in population by more than 30 percent over 20 years. Distributed throughout nine provinces and territories, they are considered threatened or red-listed under the country’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Labrador, the Canadian government said in the intro to its plan. Several other species of caribou are also at risk from a mixture of industrial development and climate change throughout the country.

The court order was more than just a shot in the arm for the caribou themselves, aboriginal leaders said; it also reaffirmed and treaty obligations on the part of the government.

“This is yet another significant court decision which upholds the Treaty rights of First Nations in Canada and by protecting the caribou herds and caribou habitat, these and other First Nation communities can and will continue to exercise their traditional rights and practices, including hunting, trapping and fishing,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a statement when the court ruling came down. “We call on the federal government to work directly with First Nations in areas where caribou reside to ensure our concerns are addressed and our rights are upheld.”