Edmonton Journal

Alberta's inaction on caribou is a disgrace

Province, industry allies seem set on waiting species out, Lorne Fitch says.

- Lorne Fitch is a profession­al biologist, a retired provincial fish and wildlife biologist and a former adjunct professor with the University of Calgary.

Great billows of smoke were used to hide battleship­s in wartime. Smokescree­ns are still employed, but to disguise a lack of meaningful activity, especially with the long-running battle to save caribou in Alberta. You can't see the smoke, but it's there in the form of caribou task forces, ostensibly tasked with saving caribou, but having the opposite intent.

The federal government, the last chance for species at risk, has told the province to produce and deliver on a plan to ensure caribou don't go the way of the passenger pigeon. A recently released report, years late, shows little or no progress.

Caribou task forces were formed of concerned conservati­on groups and Indigenous peoples plus the usual foot-draggers of industry. In particular, the timber and energy industries are the ultimate gatekeeper­s, trying to run out the clock for caribou, as they maximize economic opportunit­y. They are abetted by timorous provincial politician­s, who hide in plain sight behind the smokescree­n of these committees.

Caribou are running out of time. Or, time is running out of caribou. This species depends on mature to old growth forests. Those are where lichens, the caribou's main food source, are found. Mature forests don't provide forage for moose and deer — the mainstay for wolves. When timber is harvested, habitat shifts to benefit moose and deer, and the logging roads, seismic lines, oilpatch roads and pipeline rights of way are perfect travel lanes for wolves. Caribou lose.

The pace of resource extraction in the northern foothills and boreal forest is at a stage where no caribou population seems safe and most are declining. Biologists hold little hope if the present trend continues. In the face of this, industry denies, delays, detracts and deflects from any reasonable solution that would keep caribou on the land.

The timber industry says, “Don't worry, in 80 to 100 years there will be lots of caribou habitat.” This would be like assuring those in the conference room that oxygen isn't available right now, but will be in a day or two. Perhaps it was a lack of oxygen that prompted the industry response.

An energy representa­tive replied that the pace of oil and gas extraction had to continue — if not, “where would the government get the financial resources for caribou habitat restoratio­n?” These are not solutions, but rather hollow and disingenuo­us excuses.

In the sitcom The Simpsons, Ned Flanders' parents were beatniks, early precursors to hippies. In the care, raising and nurturing of Ned, they rejected the convention­al norms and discipline­s of parental authority and direction. Ned developed symptoms of bad behaviour, beyond their control. In desperatio­n, they took him to a child psychologi­st. The doctor asked what they had tried to change Ned's behaviour. Ned's mother, frustrated and desperate for help, says, “We've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas.”

This episode is a perfect metaphor for the lack of progress on caribou conservati­on.

This smokescree­n doesn't cover caribou, because there are so few left to disguise.

Politician­s and the senior bureaucrat­s have forgotten who their “tribe” is; it is Albertans and not industry. That misplaced loyalty got us to where we are today with caribou. Utah Phillips, folk singer, raconteur and anarchist, once said: “The Earth is not dying; it is being killed, and those who are doing the killing have names and addresses.” Their names and affiliatio­ns are writ large on the phoney caribou task forces and, in the background, those who set up these smokescree­ns to disguise their spineless behaviour.

Doing nothing is not a course of action. Instead, it is a flight from responsibi­lity and accountabi­lity. It may be high time for the federal government to step in, to be the adults in the room. The province and its industry allies seem intent on running out the clock on caribou to ensure no appropriat­e recovery action is taken.

Shame on them.

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