Alberta is home to a wide range of wildlife, and each species is unique, with varying preferences and needs.
Caribou is an iconic Canadian species, and Albertans want to ensure steps are taken to help at-risk herds recover. The woodland caribou is currently classified as a threatened species. Populations are declining, and there is no simple answer as to why. Many complex factors are at play, including natural and human activity on the land, and the threat of a changing climate.
Alberta’s caribou population, a variety of other wildlife, and the forest industry all need healthy forests in order to survive. With the long-term health of an important species and the future of the 40,000 Albertans that depend on forestry at stake, it is critically important that we get this balance right.
There are a number of complex factors contributing to the decline in caribou populations. It is crucial that government strategies use the most recent information available to develop a recovery plan, including research-based approaches that sufficiently consider all of the factors impacting our woodland caribou. Focusing on single measures is not a holistic solution. It is critical that we use the best science available, and to develop a multi-faceted, multi-species approach.
Government must communicate with all stakeholders (industry, Indigenous communities, etc.) and carefully consider all of the values of our forests when creating a plan for caribou.
Species At Risk Act (SARA)
SARA is federal legislation that deals with caribou and their habitat. Successful implementation of SARA requires a number of careful considerations:
Our warming climate is changing our forests. It introduces uncertainty: worsens fires and insect infestations, introduces new predator/prey relationships and disease, and alters the fabric of our forests. For caribou, this means changes to traditional habitat and food supply, and new opportunity for predators.
The forest sector is a critical ally in the fight against climate change. Actively managing our forests in a manner that optimizes carbon sequestration (planting new trees after harvest), and using more wood products (wood locks in carbon) helps to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Alberta’s forest industry works diligently to maintain the health of our forests, so they continue to act as a natural carbon sink and help us combat carbon emissions. Sustainable forest management is part of the solution to fight climate change.
Our forests are an incredibly important resource with many different values, such as: recreation, wildlife habitat, timber and cultural uses. When the forest industry makes a plan, we plan for all values of the forest. We manage our forests in a way that promotes the health of our watersheds, supports habitat for wildlife, and mitigates the risk of events like wildfire and insect infestation. That’s why when we plan, we plan 200 years ahead.
What makes this so complex, is that not all of our wildlife want the same things. Every species has different habitat preferences: some thrive in young forests, some in middle-aged ones, and some in mature, established forests.
Grizzly bears, a species considered of “Special Concern”, are one of many animals that prefer younger, disturbed forests. If we manage in a way that only considers grizzly bears it would be at great cost to our caribou; a surplus of younger forests would encourage more wildlife to move into traditional caribou ranges, and would increase the risk of predation on that species. Alternatively, if we manage in a way that only considers caribou, our grizzly bear populations would further decline; a lack of young forests would cause their preferred food sources to become scarce, and may encourage the bears to wander into more urban areas to seek out sustenance. It is critical to understand the nuances and challenges that impact different wildlife and groups, and to develop a multi-species approach.
Our forest sector is constantly in communication with and collaborating with research groups, Indigenous communities, and a variety of other stakeholders to understand the intricacies of the relationships between our wildlife and our forests better.
Caribou prefer large, continuous areas of mature pine and peat-lands. These areas have large amounts of lichens that caribou feed on in the winter, and minimal competition from other ungulates and prey.
Alberta’s forestry industry:
- Creates over 40,000 jobs
- Contributes over $7 billion to the provincial economy
- Supports over 70 communities across the province
We need a forest that supports healthy watershed, absorbs more carbon, and supports a variety of wildlife. A healthy forest is paramount. Plans that only consider single values and do not incorporate potential socioeconomic impacts could put thousand of Albertans out of work.
The forest sector works to maintain healthy, diverse forests and to harvest and plant trees sustainably and in a manner that optimizes carbon sequestration. Restricting access to the forest landbase means less forest management and fewer jobs. Caribou planning needs to take into account the long-term health of our forests and our forest communities.
Better Science Supports Better Decisions
The role of factors like climate change, mountain pine beetle, habitat quality, and predator/prey relationships needs to be better understood to make meaningful change for caribou recovery, along with accurate counts of herd populations. Making decisions that put forests and jobs at risk without using the best available science would be irresponsible.
Not all forests and not all caribou herds are the same. We need approaches that account for the unique circumstances of each situation; requiring the same measures to be taken for each region and each herd does not make any sense.
The forest sector is engaged in many research partnerships with groups like fRI Research and the University of Alberta. Collaborating with these groups helps the industry better understand caribou behaviour and habitat needs, and to develop measures to maintain caribou on the landscape. These learnings are critical to guiding our forest practices in Alberta, and developing our forest management plans. We are committed to investing in these partnerships and working with government and research institutes to find the best solution.
Alberta forest companies recently pledged an additional $5 million to aid ongoing caribou research.
A Multi-Species Approach
What helps one species may harm another. Dealing with individual threatened species in isolation of each other is not pragmatic. To help maintain healthy, diverse forests for the benefit of all wildlife, we need to take a comprehensive approach.
A Healthy Forest = Caribou + Jobs
The forest sector needs to maintain healthy, diverse forests and to harvest and plant trees sustainably in order to keep our forests and our people working. Government must consider the impacts that current plans will have to our economy and to our forests, and conduct a thorough socio-economic analysis before making any final decisions.