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A jam-packed parking lot and a hall filled with over 300 people was a welcomed sight by local officials at the Whitecourt & District Chamber of Commerce Caribou, Forestry and You, Public Information Awareness Panel Session on Thursday, September 7, at St. Joseph’s Parish Hall. The evening was set up to provide information to residents about caribou conservation and what impact that may have on Alberta forests and rural communities.
To start off, here are some facts about Woodland Caribou. They can be found in nine provinces and two territories within the country covering 51 different ranges/populations. Nationally, it is estimated that there are 34,000 with roughly 2,800 in Alberta spread over 13 million hectares of forest from the mountains of Jasper National Park to the border of the Northwest Territories.
As solitary animals, they utilize large range areas which reduce their risk of encountering predators such as wolves and bears. Caribou also have relatively lower reproductive rates as compared to other ungulates. Issues that are leading to their decline and, as such, being listed as “threatened” both nationally and provincially include habitat alteration from things like industry and forest fires which then lead to increases in predator encounters and a reduction of habitat suitability.
The Species at Risk Act (SARA) was created in 2003 to prevent wildlife species from becoming extinct and to support their recovery. Once an animal such as the caribou has been listed as “threatened,” both federal and provincial governments must develop plans to stop the decline and ensure sustainability. Through information provided by SARA, the federal government has determined that caribou ranges need to maintain 65 per cent undisturbed habitat to give the herd a 60 per cent probability of surviving.
So, how does this affect Whitecourt?
As a forestry community with several large employers who rely on being able to work within our surrounding forests, there are worries that the range plans currently under development could impact the areas in which local companies can work. The 11 members on the panel including environmentalists, elected officials from all the levels of government, and forestry industry representatives spent the evening answering questions from very concerned residents.
Former Yellowhead MP Robert Merrifield acted as moderator and spoke very frankly about a couple of points that all sides could agree on. “There is not one individual here who wants to destroy the caribou. There is not one individual here who wants to destroy jobs.” Those sentiments were echoed by multiple speakers including Mayor Chichak who also expressed her pride in seeing a packed house.
“I’m so pleased with the level of interest this event has received and I would really like to thank all of you for being with us tonight. This is such an important and complex issue that has the potential to greatly impact every member of our community,” said Mayor Chichak.
“This issue goes way beyond forestry. Like many other communities in west central Alberta, both energy and forestry are the economic drivers that have allowed municipalities to remain both viable and sustainable. If the balance between the environment, social, and economics isn’t met, then this plan has the potential to drastically change how industry does business and, in turn, the health of our community,” she said.
After a brief introduction from each member of the panel, the floor was open to the public to approach the mic and ask a question or to write one down and hand it in to one of several Chamber of Commerce members walking the room.
Questions included, “What will this do to my community?” to wanting specific numbers about ranges or costs. One resident even provided a potential idea for trying to build up the caribou population away from industry as has been done with bison in the past. Some felt they received an answer to their query while others did not.
Certain statements, including those made by Alberta Forest Alliance Director, Ray Hilts, regularly received cheers and whistles from those in attendance including this one which made the crowd particularly loud. “People are number one, people are number two, and people are number three. When we look at socio-economic impact and we look at acceptable levels of impact, there is none. We’ve talked with the minister’s office on this issue in the past and I’ve been told Albertans care about caribou but I don’t think those Albertans who care about caribou were asked whether they want their jobs or not. They weren’t asked whether their businesses were important to them or whether it was important to raise their families in the communities they live in.”
The panel was made up of Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Oneil Carlier; ECCC Canadian Wildlife Service Joseph Crocker; Land and Environmental Planning Director Brian Makowecki; Executive Director Scott Milligan; Forest Land Management Deputy Minister Bruce Mayer, Sr.; Wildlife Biologist with Woodland Caribou Management Robin Steenweg; CPAWS Northern Alberta Kecia Kerr; Conservation Specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association Carolyn Campbell; Alberta Forest Alliance Director Ray Hilts; Canadian Associate of Petroleum Producers Chris Montgomery; and ANC Director of Business Development Jim McCammon.
Residents who were not able to attend are urged to watch the session in its entirety by going to the Whitecourt and District Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page.