Endangered caribou in more danger

Stop and take a quarter out of your pocket. Hold it in your hand while you read this blog.

At Sierra Club Canada, we’ve been working to protect the woodland caribou for over a decade – and last week was a bad one for the endangered caribou.

There is belief out there that laws protecting endangered species are arbitrary and draconian, and that they’re somehow stifling our economic growth.

Let me tell you a story. Endangered species jurisdiction is split between the feds and provinces. Why you might ask? You’ll be told because of the constitution. Now I might be a little jaded, but I believe the real reason is the drafters - politicians all - were aware that protecting the environment may require decisive action that might impact on the wishes of industrial investors. I believe the drafters wanted laws governing endangered species to be confusing and not decisive. A Government unhappy with having to protect a newly identified endangered species can jump up and down, stamp its feet and yell “mine, mine, mine” until it gets its way. More often, just the threat of these jurisdictional tantrums leads to inaction on serious species protection.

The myth “environmental laws are hard things to get around” stems from one U.S. case that received wide-spread coverage years ago when the endangered spotted owl stopped a clear cut of a forest in the Pacific Northwest. This myth is the basis for the Canadian federal government’s recent gutting of environmental assessment laws, or “red tape” as many like to call it. Just imagine a damn owl stopping a clear cut!

So while people believe in the myth, the real story is the opposite and the woodland caribou is a poster boy for this mess.

Two story lines emerged in the last week:

Last Friday, Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent released the federal ‘recovery plan’. It suggests controlling wolves will fix the plight of the woodland caribou! There was no press release or media conference - no fanfare of any kind. Kent just posted it on the Environment Canada website. It took a court order to end the four-year delay in releasing the plan, so it’s no wonder he released it quietly on Friday afternoon in the summer, and not in a few weeks when Parliament is back and vacations over. If they knew about it, people might’ve be concerned - perhaps even shocked - and tossed-aside the spotted owl myth.

Meanwhile, Alberta's separate process (yes - duplication) came to light. Access to information revealed that the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association and Alberta Forest Products Association had delayed the provincial plan by challenging the science. There was curious quote from an Alberta MLA saying he preferred a “voluntary plan” because the oil industry has a good track record for being “responsible”. Orwell would be impressed.

Back to the federal plan: I assigned an intern to read it thoroughly because I love to watch the incredulous reaction when they apply all that higher education and discover reason isn’t actually the basis for how government works.

The biggest threat to the woodland caribou is not from wolves – it’s habitat loss. There is no scientific disagreement on this fundamental point.

The report has a great map (see below) showing a continuous band of habitat stretching from Québec all the way through to Alberta - where it breaks. The break is the Tar Sands - you know, the mega-project you can see from outer space.

Caribou obviously can’t forage in giant pits and tailing ponds and, of course, wolves will use the industrial roads to get better access to the herds. But habitat loss is the issue – blaming wolves is a trick, a sleight of hand.

Furthermore, aside from a plan to kill wolves, the federal ‘plan’ isn’t a plan at all. “This would be great to teach students about endangered species,” said our intern. “But it doesn’t say what’s going to be done. It’s sorta like a list of what could be done.”

That’s why we’re launching an email campaign later this week - aimed at both the federal and Alberta governments. Our request is clear: WORK TOGETHER AND MAKE ROOM FOR THE CARIBOU!

We need a detailed plan that lays out exactly how habitat is going to be protected and reserved for woodland caribou.

And next time someone tries to tell you our environmental laws are too strict, ask them to give you a quarter - and make it disappear. Explain that’s how they work.

John Bennett, Executive Director
Sierra Club Canada


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