In 2019, Ecojustice launched a lawsuit aimed at protecting five herds of boreal caribou in Alberta: the Red Earth, Richardson, West Side Athabasca River, East Side Athabasca River, and Cold Lake herds.
On behalf of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, Alberta Wilderness Association, and the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice asked the court to compel the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to recommend a safety net order to protect boreal caribou habitat under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).
In 2020, Ecojustice discontinued this lawsuit (Alberta Wilderness Association et al. v. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada) after the Minister informed our clients he would make a recommendation.
Unfortunately, the federal government opted not to follow the Minister’s recommendation. Instead, it says it will rely on a conservation agreement with the province to protect boreal caribou.
Under the plan, the Alberta Government will be responsible for delivering range plans for caribou herds in northeastern Alberta within five years. At the time of the announcement, there were no plans for interim protections for caribou or their habitat.
Boreal caribou are listed as threatened under SARA. But while this species faces pressing threats, provinces have failed to take meaningful steps to protect it. That’s why Ecojustice launched a lawsuit aimed at forcing the federal government to step in.
Boreal caribou are deeply interconnected with the forests and wetlands where they live. This means that, when we protect boreal caribou, we automatically end up protecting the boreal zone, a vast ecosystem that plays an important global role in storing carbon, purifying air and water, and regulating the climate.
Boreal caribou are also important culturally, especially to Indigenous Peoples, including Ecojustice clients The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation. In the words of Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, “ACFN has a special relationship with caribou because they have sustained our people for thousands of years. This relationship is supposed to be protected by our treaty rights. However, we no longer hunt woodland caribou in our territory because of the impacts of industrial development and the failures of Alberta and Canada to protect them.”
It is clear Ecojustice’s lawsuit was a powerful motivator for the province and the federal government to finalize a conservation agreement to protect boreal caribou. Thanks in part to pressure from the litigation, the province agreed to meet federal recovery strategy targets for undisturbed habitat (at least 65 per cent) and agreed to greater transparency with respect to caribou populations and habitat disturbance.
However, the decision to rely on this federal-provincial conservation agreement rather than a SARA safety net order could leave boreal caribou in Alberta without the immediate protections they need.
Unfortunately, the timelines in the conservation agreement may not move fast enough to protect threatened herds. That’s why we say the federal government should have made an additional safety net protection order under s. 61 of SARA to ensure habitat protection in the interim until the range plans and other actions are put in place.
Photo of caribou by peupleloup, via Flickr. Image obtained under Creative Commons.