By Lloyd Dolha
Four northeastern Alberta First Nations are calling for the Harper government to flex some federal muscle to save the dwindling habitat of threatened woodland caribou. Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Enoch Cree Nation, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation have asked the federal Tory government to issue an emergency order under the Species At Risk Act (SARA) to protect the full range of woodland caribou habitat in northeastern Alberta from industrial development by the region’s the oil and gas industry. “We are calling on government to immediately halt the destruction of our lands, lands that sustain our caribou and our people. Our traditional land is dwindling,” said Beaver Lake Cree Chief Al Lameman. “We need habitat to ensure there is a healthy surplus. These animals sustain us, and as they die, our future becomes uncertain.”
The federal Ministry of Environment is more than three years past the deadline for preparing a recovery strategy for the woodland caribou (currently listed as “threatened” under SARA). A recovery strategy is a key step for the conservation of threatened species and is required before the federal government can provide long term protection for remaining caribou habitat. The July 15th release coincided with the release of a new report by Dr. Stan Boutin, a leading caribou expert at the University of Alberta. Boutin’s report says the woodland caribou are in steep decline in the region because of the cumulative effects of industrial oil and gas developments in caribou habitat.
According to Boutin’s report, the East Side Athabasca River herd has declined by 71% since 1996, while the Cold Lake Weapons Range herd has declined 74% since 1998. Boutin says this dramatic decline is “a strong signal that drastic immediate management action is required to keep the caribou from disappearing completely” in the Alberta traditional territory of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. The report recommends habitat restoration and full protection of remaining caribou ranges in the northeastern region of the province.
In a strongly worded letter from Aboriginal rights lawyer Jack Woodward to Minister of Environment Jim Prentice, the First Nations have given the federal Tories just 45 days to prepare an emergency order under SARA protecting the woodland caribou in the region. Woodward notes that leading biologists have repeatedly recommended this course of action to Environment Canada, and he states, “You and your ministry have also known for several years about the precipitous decline of woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta, but to date you have done nothing to protect the woodland caribou or their habitat.”
Woodward points out that the Minster had a statutory duty under SARA to prepare a recovery strategy by June of 2007. Woodward called the ministry’s procrastination and failure to comply with statutory duties under SARA “indefensible” when the woodland caribou herds in Alberta are in crisis, adding that with every passing month of government inaction these herds are driven closer to local extinction. “We feel a request for an emergency order is entirely reasonable, given the sharp decline in caribou and given the federal environment Minister’s ongoing failure to prepare a recovery plan more than three years after expiry of the mandatory deadline,” said Woodward. “The federal government has tried to justify refusing to act on this obligation with the surprising claim that time is needed to consult with First Nations. With this demand we are making it clear that First Nations are not standing in the way of action—they are demanding immediate emergency protection for the caribou until long term habitat protection is in place.”
Boutin’s report was specific to the Beaver Lake Cree, but other First Nations also want further protective measures for a half dozen additional herds in the region.
Chief Vern Janvier of the Chipewyan Prairie Cree echoed the sentiment of Lameman. “The extinction of the caribou would mean the extinction of our people. The caribou is a sacred animal; it is a measure of our way of life. When the caribou are dying, the land is dying. We see no respect from government for the caribou or for us as humans,” said Chief Janvier.