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Conservation groups urge increased protection for boreal caribou habitat

The boreal forest stands in this aerial photograph taken north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Wednesday, June 19, 2014.

Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Federal and provincial governments are being urged to increase protection for the boreal forest and its imperilled woodland caribou herds from resource-company activity, as environment ministers prepare to meet in Ottawa this week to devise plans for greater conservation efforts.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is set to meet her provincial and territorial counterparts Tuesday and Wednesday to expand the country's efforts to protect biodiversity, including protected areas that are off-bounds to industrial activity.

In a release Monday, conservation groups urged the ministers to act quickly to protect and restore caribou habitat in the boreal forest, where herds are threatened by logging and oil and gas activity. Canada will lose more than half its woodland caribou population within a few decades unless habitat-conservation measures are improved, particularly in Alberta where the energy industry is most active, the group said.

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"Clear science exists to guide caribou recovery, yet we continue to see provinces allowing habitat destruction, while engaging in Band-Aid solutions such as predator control and zoo-like enclosures," Rachel Plotkin, of the David Suzuki Foundation, said in the release.

"If we are to have wild caribou in the future, habitat protection and restoration need to be kicked to the top of the action list."

The call to restrict industrial activity comes as the U.S. government under President Donald Trump heads in the opposite direction with promises to open up more federal land for resource development and eliminate a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule that protects streams and wetlands.

Newly confirmed EPA head Scott Pruitt is expected Tuesday to outline the administration's plans for the agency, which has been long criticized by Republicans for overreaching its legislated mandate and failing to co-operate with states.

Ms. McKenna is facing pressure from Conservative MPs and business groups to go slow on environmental policy, including carbon pricing and rules for the oil and gas producers to cut methane emissions that would impose a more costly regulatory burden on industry than is faced by competitors in the United States.

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The federal government released a woodland caribou restoration strategy five years ago, as required under the Species at Risk Act. It gave the provinces five years to come up with concrete plans to protect and restore habitat, with a deadline looming this fall.

Scientists in Alberta have recommended the government increase protection of woodland caribou by designating the herds as "endangered" rather than merely "threatened," a move that would trigger additional requirements to restore habitats. However, the provincial government has so far refused to adopt that recommendation, Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association, said in an interview Monday.

"In Alberta, there are options for protecting the caribou and the communities that rely on the resource industries," Ms. Campbell said. "With the oil industry, it requires a shift in mindset to minimize surface disturbances. You can still really extract significant resources but using far less surface infrastructure."

The range of one caribou herd around Cold Lake, Alta., has seen thousands of wells drilled in recent years. "There's very little calf survival and it's just a matter of time until that population winks out unless something is done," she said.

A spokeswoman for Ms. McKenna said the federal government is working with provinces to finalize restoration plans and will meet the fall deadline. At the same time, the minister is trying to balance economic goals with environmental protection, her press secretary, Caitlin Workman, said Monday.

"This is very important in terms of protecting species that are part of Canada's natural heritage and that are both part of ecosystems and affect ecosystems," Ms. Workman said. "But we do realize that there are natural-resource projects in various areas of the country, and that also is part of Canada's wealth and we have to take that into account."

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About the Author
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

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