Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Santa’s Canadian reindeer cousins in trouble

On behalf of eight leading national and Alberta environmental organizations, Sierra Legal Defence Fund today announced that it has filed a legal petition asking the federal government to issue an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) to protect Alberta’s remaining woodland caribou and their habitat.

The petition marks the second legal action by Sierra Legal to test the strength of the federal Species at Risk Act, following a recently launched federal court case earlier this month to seek emergency action to protect British Columbia’s endangered spotted owl.

Woodland caribou, cousins of Santa’s reindeer and one of the most emblematic species of Canada’s boreal wilderness, are at particular risk of extinction in Alberta, where their numbers have dropped by about 60% since the 1960s.

“While Alberta has adopted a caribou recovery plan, the province isn’t taking any meaningful steps to maintain herds at immediate risk of extinction. It’s still allowing logging and petroleum development in their range. I’m sure Santa wouldn’t approve,” said Helene Walsh of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) – Edmonton chapter.

“We’re asking the federal environment minister to move quickly to protect Alberta caribou habitat because it’s threatened by destructive oil, gas and forestry developments,” adds Walsh.

The petition details the Alberta government’s failure to protect the iconic species despite 30 years of studies and warnings from scientists that the province’s caribou are being decimated. There are approximately 3,000 caribou left in Alberta, and many herds face imminent extinction under current development plans. The Alberta government has given the go-ahead to logging in all of the remaining caribou range in west-central Alberta and most ranges in northern Alberta. A recent study shows that if industrial development proceeds as planned, caribou will be extirpated from the entire province in less than 40 years.

“Woodland caribou are not only important because they’re part of Santa’s reindeer family, their presence is a primary indicator of the health of entire boreal forest ecosystems,” says Rachel Plotkin of the Sierra Club of Canada.

“In the past the federal government has been reluctant to act decisively on behalf of endangered species,” said Sierra Legal lawyer Devon Page. “What is the point of the Species at Risk Act if it’s not used to actually save any species at risk?”

Cliff Wallis representing the Alberta Wilderness Association and Nature Canada, and Glen Semenchuk of the Federation of Alberta Naturalists both sit on the Provincial Caribou Committee. “We are involved in this petition because our efforts to work through the committee with provincial and industry representatives to put meaningful plans in place to save our remaining caribou have been thwarted. It’s time for the federal government to step in,” they say.

“We don’t think the government has the right to condemn a species to extinction and we’re seeing clear signs from the marketplace that companies don’t want to buy products associated with caribou extinction that will tarnish their brand,” said Lafcadio Cortesi from ForestEthics. “Not only does failing to protect caribou and their habitat make bad business sense, it’s just plain wrong.”

The groups represented by Sierra Legal’s petition are the Alberta Wilderness Association, Athabasca Bioregional Society, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Federation of Alberta Naturalists, ForestEthics, Greenpeace, Nature Canada and the Sierra Club of Canada.


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