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By Vicki Winger
The federal government has developed a Woodland Caribou recovery strategy for Canada that effects Alberta. It has been determined that the national population of caribou is only 34,000 with 2,800 being in Alberta and spread over 13 million hectares from the Northwest Territories border to Jasper National Park. Provincially, about 37 per cent of our forested area is within the caribou territory. While caribou are not extinct, they have now been classified as “threatened.” Under this classification, both nationally and provincially, the federal government is able to step in and take action to protect their future if Alberta doesn’t.
The Federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) which came into force in 2003 requires the assessment, protection, and recovery of species such as the Woodland Caribou. The Alberta Government will develop a plan to ensure the sustainability of these herds. This plan will be released in October 2017 and will have the ability to stop additional disturbances within the caribou ranges by resource users such as forestry, energy, aggregate, and utilities.
The federal government has deemed the caribou range needs to maintain an undisturbed habitat of 65 per cent to give them a 60 per cent probability of surviving.
The area of great concern for us locally is the targeted caribou ranges of Little Smoky and A La Peche regions. This region spans hundreds of thousands of hectares west and south of Fox Creek and to the ANC Haul Road. This area is estimated to have a 95 per cent disturbance level and well exceeds the federal requirements. The area is also a primary source of timber for our local forest companies and is rich with developed and undeveloped oil and gas reserves.
Alberta must come up with its own Caribou Range Plan before October that is satisfactory to the federal government and shows how it will lower that 95 per cent to meet the criteria of 65 per cent threshold.
While their numbers for survival rate vs the undisturbed land have not yet been proven, it is largely based only on theory or a concept.
As the town relies on the forestry products-industry for its economy, Whitecourt stands to have roughly 1,000 job losses and many more will be sacrificed over this federal legislation. With a more restrictive approach to a caribou plan, the implications would be decreased home prices, higher taxes, and reduced demand on tertiary retail goods and services.
The provincial government seems to have a significant bias as to which Industries they want to target for the Caribou Plan.
Ray Hilts, member of the Alberta Forest Alliance has stated they’ve received restriction letters for the timber harvesting since 2012. However, according to data during that same time frame, it showed the government had approved 2,373 dispositions for the oil and gas industry in this same area while the timber industry was given zero harvesting approvals. Using government data, Hilts has discovered that of the permanent disturbance in this region, the energy industry and secondary industries account for 89 per cent of it. If you factor in the seismic disturbance, that rate jumps up to 100 per cent.
Hilts feels there’s a double standard. Forest companies working in the area already have an approved detailed Forest Management Plan in place. In that plan, any areas that are disturbed by their harvesting are typically all replanted within two years.
Again, this same area has been harvested and managed by the forest industry for decades and has demonstrated an impeccable record toward sustainable forest management. In fact, they are seeing areas that have been regenerated and contributing to the caribou habitat, not hindering it.
Is there a better plan that not only meets the federal needs to protect these animals but also sustain our economy? The Province of Alberta has till October to come up with one. In the meantime, the Alberta Forest Alliance is in the forefront with sending out as many letters as they can to our government in hopes it can find a better solution that won’t negatively impact our communities, citizens, and businesses. The local Chamber of Commerce is advising residents to express their concerns and input to the local MLA Oniel Carlier at 1-800-786-7136 (Mayerthorpe Office) or 1-780-427-2137 (Legislative Office) or email him at [email protected]