The oil sands don't need another environmental headache but they're getting one, courtesy of concerns about the possible extinction of caribou.
A major environmental group, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, is calling on Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to set aside from development more than half the area in and around the oil sands to prevent the region's dwindling caribou herds from being wiped out.
In a letter to the Premier on Monday, the group said placing large parts of bitumen-rich northeastern Alberta off-limits to development would help the province repair some of the damage the oil sands have inflicted on its global image.
"Protection of caribou and wildlife habitat would send a strong message to the entire world that we in Alberta do intend to meet our commitments to sustainable resource development and maintenance of our biodiversity," the letter said.
Dave Ealey, a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, the ministry responsible for wildlife protection, said the province is looking for a caribou plan "that balances all the different considerations for that region," including economic development. "Our objective is still to ensure that we have caribou on the landscape," he said.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined to comment on the environmental group's proposal. But David Pryce, a vice-president with the industry association, said there are many steps that could be taken to help the caribou, including protecting them from predators.
Caribou are at risk because the species needs large wilderness tracts of old-growth boreal forest for food and to escape wolves, their main predator. Forest clearing for logging, roads and oil development create new-growth tree stands and landscapes that favour the spread of deer and moose, population shifts that in turn attract wolves.
Concerns increased last year when an Alberta committee advising the government on the caribou living in the Athabasca region that contains the oil sands predicted they would go extinct there in two to four decades, unless thousands of square kilometres were set aside. It said only about 900 caribou remain in the region. There are caribou in many northern areas of Canada, but numbers are generally dwindling and the federal government, along with Alberta, has designated them as a threatened species.
The committee said the province may have to cull wolves in some areas for at least the next century to protect the reindeer-like animals. It also recommended consideration be given to the extreme step of rounding up pregnant caribou and having them give birth in fenced pens to reduce the number of young animals eaten by wolves.
Helene Walsh, a conservation director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said her organization fears the province, when faced with the choice between preserving caribou and helping the oil industry, will sacrifice the animals. Caribou numbers in the oil sands area have dropped by nearly 50 per cent since 1993, according to figures the group sent Mr. Stelmach.
"I think they're almost doomed because industry and the government don't seem willing to take their plight seriously," Ms. Walsh said.