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Flying over a Broken Boreal Landscape: A Search for Solutions for Canada’s Woodland Caribou

Looking out the window driving north east from Edmonton, Alberta, I’m struck by the number of huge trucks on the road. We are more than 2 1/2 hours north of the city, but they keep passing us; big, powerful, and covered in dust and mud from their off road excursions.

Alison Ronson and I have gotten up at 5:00 am that morning to travel to Grande Cache, where we will be taking a helicopter with employees from a local forestry company to inspect what Environment Canada has deemed the most disturbed boreal woodland caribou habitat in Canada, the Little Smoky Range.

We been invited to join this tour in preparation for a meeting we will be having with the several forestry companies that have logging rights in the range to discuss what can be done to protect caribou habitat, while also recognizing the communities’ needs for employment in the tenures and the nearby mills. This discussion was in the lead up of the government coming up with a plan for what to do in this range, and is a conversation CPAWS has been having across Canada through the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification processes, or directly with companies and governments willing to have such discussions.

I’ve got my camera out on my lap while we are driving thinking if I’m lucky we may see wildlife, but it quickly becomes apparent that I’m not likely to see many of my favorite mammals; the level of industrial activity even in this relatively remote area of Alberta is very high and there is a lot of traffic on the road. If I were a moose or a wolf, I would stay away too.

“There won’t be any caribou here,” jokes Alison, looking my ready camera. And of course she is right. Caribou in Alberta are in terrible straits, and are often considered the “walking dead” or “grey ghosts” as most of the herds are having more and more trouble keeping enough calves alive to keep the herd population stable, let alone growing. This is a problem the Alberta government and the federal government have been documenting for more than 10 years. There are both provincial and federal plans to take action. But to date, none of that has translated to change on the ground. In particular, there has been no slowing or stopping of the destruction of caribou habitat in the province. In 2012 the Little Smoky herd had only 5% of their habitat is considered undisturbed. Now, who is to say what is left.

By late morning, Alison and I have met up with our hosts, have maps of where we are going to be flying, and are sitting in the waiting area while our pilot finished mapping out the flight plan. A stocky man with an old ball cap strides in and greets our pilot. On finding out the purpose of our trip, he guffaws slightly, “I’ve been working here for 15 years” he tells us, “putting in (oil) wells all over this area. I’ve never seen a caribou. They keep to themselves. They are good at hiding.”

That’s one for the caribou, I think and I am reminded that the caribou are survivors. Present in North America for more than 2 million years, again and again they have overcome and adapted to living conditions that even some of our most tenacious northern animals avoid, have survived in fact by making their home in places that most species avoid. But even these adaptable creatures have their limits and the level of destruction of their habitat across Alberta, British Columbia and other parts of Canada, has moved at a speed that that has exceeded even their ability to adapt, and opened up their home to dangers that they have not been able to outrun.

Once in the helicopter the reality of the destruction of this forested landscape becomes all too obvious. There is no view without a linear disturbance such as a seismic line opening or a road, or an opening for a well or timber extraction. At first we are in the periphery of the range. It’s going to get better, I think, when we enter the zone where the government has put a moratorium on logging and selling new oil and gas leases. Yet, as the pilot goes to settle the helicopter down in the heart of caribou territory, on a logging road, we see several trucks and a bulldozer on the road before us. One of the representatives of the forestry company jumps out and strides over to the trucks. This is his company’s tenure, and they were not aware that there would be activity here.

“We are widening the road” says the truck operator. “The curves are too dangerous, so we are making the road straighter.” Meanwhile his colleague is pushing rocks onto peatlands that border the road with no consideration of the ecosystem that is being destroyed.

We all stand and watch the destruction in shock. Even the pilot seems upset. Later, as we get back into the helicopter he tells us that he often flies the Alberta government over the range to survey caribou numbers in the winter, and that this is an area where they often see caribou in the winter. He understands the need for the economic activity, has explained to us the importance of the various pipelines that we have seen while flying towards the center of the range, but now shakes his head. “They really will have nowhere to go if this keeps up,” he says.

The forestry employees were similarly upset and express the need for things to change. One of the things that would help, expressed one employee, of for there to be much more coordination when it comes to road building and maintenance. “There is money to be saved,” he pointed out, “as well as caribou habitat to be save by tackling that problem.”

I did not get to see any “Grey Ghosts” of the boreal forest during that trip to the Little Smoky, but I didn’t need to see them to be impressed the urgency of the situation. Yet, despite what might seem like a desperate situation, I did not walk away entirely discouraged by the trip, and here is why:

  • Boreal caribou impressed me again with their tenacity. They are hanging on in a very busy landscape; they are not thriving, but it doesn’t take a lot to imagine that with some help their situation could be turned around;
  • People in Alberta do care. Not all of them, obviously, but during our trip we met several people who even outside of our direct circle of contacts, are thinking about the survival of the caribou in Alberta and what is needed;
  • While only a fragment of the forests that once were large undisturbed areas remain in the Little Smoky, there are still places to conserve for caribou habitat and still many more – that could be restored. This is true in this most disturbed of ranges, but also across Canada, where sometimes the decisions about where to allow more industrial activity or not is less fraught.

There is still time to take action and protect boreal caribou habitat, and more people willing to do so. While the discussions in some of the ranges are extremely complex, like in the Little Smoky in Alberta today, there are people able to think differently about the problem and able to find solutions. We just can’t stop looking for the solutions and must keep encouraging our decision makers to take the time to find them.