EDMONTON — Three Alberta environmental groups have joined a First Nations effort calling on the federal environment minister to protect boreal caribou herds in the northeastern area of the province.
In a detailed, 13-page letter sent Tuesday to Environment Minister Jim Prentice, Ecojustice outlined the legal arguments compelling the department to act on behalf of the seven imperilled herds in the area.
The letter was sent on behalf of the Alberta Wilderness Association, the Sierra Club Prairie chapter and the Pembina Institute.
They argue that the provincial government has not done enough to halt the decline of the herds in the area, ignoring a recommendation in 2005 from its own woodland caribou recovery team that called for a moratorium on further mineral and timber allocations until range plans are completed. “Further, to the detriment of Boreal caribou herds in northeastern Alberta, the Government of Alberta had been ineffective in restricting industrial activity within the existing ranges of those herds,” the letter says. “As a result, the populations of the Boreal caribou herds in northeastern Alberta have continued to decline since 2005.”
The herds are not self-sustaining. Without intensive intervention, the chance they will survive is less than 50 per cent, according to a scientific review.
Sheila Muxlow, director of the Sierra Club Prairie, said the organization has tried to raise concerns about the environmental destruction, health concerns and treaty rights violations associated with the unabated oilsands development, to no avail. This endangered species legislation provides a lever to force the federal government to temporarily halt additional oilsands development until caribou habitat is protected, she said.
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight doesn’t think the moratorium is a reasonable request. “I think what you have to do is take a look at what’s already been done in the province of Alberta,” he said. “I can tell you that for one thing the province is absolutely committed to ensuring caribou remain on the landscape in Alberta. We’ve done a tremendous amount of work. I would suggest also that the province is at this point certainly in the very best position to manage our own issues relative to species at risk. And we actually have a lot more information on caribou in the province of Alberta than the feds would have.”
Knight said they are working on the lower Athabasca regional plan and land use framework plan for the area. Consultation on that will come out soon and the environmental groups will have a chance to get involved in that, he added. That framework is designed to consider all needs on landscape there, including the amount of land needed as caribou recovery area.
Boreal caribou were listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act when it came into force in 2002. Under the Species at Risk Act, the federal Minister of the Environment had a clear responsibility to prepare a recovery strategy for boreal caribou no later than June 2007, the letter says. To date, no national recovery strategy for boreal caribou has been completed.
The groups say they are supporting the request for immediate action that was sent to the minister on July 15 by the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Enoch Cree Nation, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Those groups want further industrial action in the area to be halted until the recovery strategy is completed and implemented.
The environmental groups say mandatory action is required under the Species At Risk Act. The minister must recommend interim emergency protection of all current ranges of boreal caribou herds to the Governor in Council until such time as the recovery strategy is completed and implemented. The groups have asked that the minister comply by the end of this month. Ecojustice has said it is willing to go to court to fight for the caribou if Prentice does nothing.
Minister Prentice’s office was not able to respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.