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press release

Environmental groups, Cold Lake First Nations, petition Minister of Environment and Climate Change for caribou protections

November 27, 2017

Safety net order would allow the federal government to extend Species at Risk Act protections to boreal woodland caribou in Alberta

CALGARY – Alberta Wilderness Association, Cold Lake First Nations, David Suzuki Foundation, and Ecojustice are asking the Canadian government to take a vital step to protect threatened boreal woodland caribou in Alberta.

In a petition submitted on Monday, Nov. 27, the groups urged Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna to recommend a safety net order under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) for five herds of caribou in northeastern Alberta that have been severely impacted by industrial development.

Recognizable by their white manes and intricate antlers, boreal woodland caribou are a naturally and culturally significant species.

“Caribou is an iconic species on the landscape and a part of the cultural and natural heritage that belongs to all Canadians- not just First Nations. Cold Lake First Nations sides with the caribou. If the caribou can survive on the land then so can we,” Cold Lake First Nations’ Chief and Council said in a statement on Monday.

However, these caribou face significant threats to their survival.

“Boreal woodland caribou are listed under SARA as threatened. This means that if we don’t take steps to protect them now, they could disappear from the wild in Canada altogether,” Ecojustice lawyer Barry Robinson said. “We’re calling on the Minister to urgently recommend a safety net order, before this species ends up further down the path to extinction.”

Boreal woodland caribou need large, uninterrupted areas of old growth forest and wetlands to survive. Habitat destruction and fragmentation has left herds in Alberta dangerously exposed to preying wolves.

According to a federal report published at the end of October, 2017, 20 out of 51 boreal woodland caribou herds have declined in population since 2012. In Alberta, seven out of 12 herds were in decline in 2017, only three were stable, and data was unavailable for the other two.

“The highly imperiled herds in Alberta have continued to decline under the province’s watch despite clear science outlining the scale of habitat protection and restoration needed to advance recovery ,” David Suzuki Foundation science projects manager Rachel Plotkin said. “The federal Minister is poised to form an opinion about the extent to which Alberta is protecting caribou habitat, and it is our hope that this evidence will play a role in facilitating federal leadership where it is obvious that provinces are failing.”

Safety net orders allow the federal government to extend protection to species and their habitats on provincial and territorial lands. Without such an order, automatic SARA protections for species and their habitats only apply to species living on federal lands and to federal species such as migratory birds and aquatic species.

The Minister has the power to recommend Cabinet employ a safety net order if she finds that a province is not doing enough to protect an at-risk species.

Provinces were given an Oct. 5, 2017 deadline to produce range plans for protecting caribou habitat, more than 95 per cent of which falls on provincial and territorial lands. Not a single province or territory met this date.

“Alberta caribou urgently need effective protection of their critical habitat,” Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell said. “Alberta has committed to achieve self-sustaining caribou populations, but its laws and actions to date have not offered the protection needed to meet this goal. The use of a SARA safety net is crucial to actually get us there.”

To date, Cabinet has not issued a single safety net order since SARA came fully into force in 2004.

This is a joint release from Alberta Wilderness Association, Cold Lake First Nations, David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice.