The federal Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal population, in Canada was posted recently and the outlook remains bleak for Alberta’s caribou herds. The focus of much of much of the Recovery Strategy is rightly on critical habitat and reducing habitat disturbance.
The critical habitat necessary to achieve the population and distribution objectives for the recovery and survival of boreal caribou is partially identified in this strategy. Critical habitat for boreal caribou is identified as: i) the area within the boundary of each boreal caribou range that provides an overall ecological condition that will allow for an ongoing recruitment and retirement cycle of habitat, which maintains a perpetual state of a minimum of 65% of the area as undisturbed habitat; and ii) biophysical attributes required by boreal caribou to carry out life processes.
Unfortunately the Recovery Strategy otherwise fails to moves us forward in any substantive fashion in terms of reducing habitat disturbance. It remains unclear how the 65% target for undisturbed habitat will be reached and even the target is achieved, it remains highly questionable whether it will be sufficient to restore populations to a level of sustainability.
Actions to restore and sustain herds set out in the Recovery Strategy include creating industry operating guidelines, using land-use planning to prioritize conservation, creating stewardship agreements, managing predator and alternate prey, and implementing other monitoring and research tools. It remains unclear how this host of tools and habitat management approaches detailed in the strategy will reduce disturbed areas or how long it will take to get to the target. Provincial policies cited to achieve the target include Alberta’s A Woodland Caribou Policy for Alberta, June 2011 and Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan, 2004/5 – 2013/14. Again, neither policy articulates clear and substantive steps towards reducing the amount of disturbed lands. Certainly this is the policy’s aim but reliance remains on continuing mitigation efforts that appear unlikely to drastically reduce the disturbance footprint in Alberta’s caribou ranges.
Further, the recently published Lower Athabasca Regional Plan failed to include a substantive process for timely reclamation of disturbed lands and a “regional landscape management plan” has yet to be released. While some conservation areas established under the regional planning process cover areas of caribou habitat, there are large areas of habitat that are not covered. Even where conservation areas are established the timing of for restoring disturbed lands remains uncertain.
The other major concern is the target of 65% undisturbed habitat itself. The Recovery Strategy (at Appendix E) identifies how, at a disturbance level of 35%, we are only slightly more likely than not to reach the objective of having sustained or restored herds. The strategy identifies the probability of reaching the objective of herd sustainability as 60%, i.e. there is a 40% chance of not reaching stated objectives. Our species at risk deserve more precautionary measures.
Both federal and provincial policies for the recovery of caribou herds in Alberta remain high on aspiration and optimism and low on action. The provincial and federal governments need to work toward bringing regulatory provisions to bear that require timely and progressive restoration of habitat in caribou ranges if the herds are to be restored and sustained.