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Politicians decry selloff of habitat for endangered caribou

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EDMONTON - Alberta's decision to sell off for energy development habitat that supports two endangered caribou herds is bad science, bad politics and bad economics, say environmentalists, scientists and opposition politicians.

"It is a revealing demonstration of this utter lack of attention to environmental considerations in this province," NDP member of the legislature Rachel Notley said Wednesday.

"It's always about industry first and then putting out press releases to save the environment second."

Joe Anglin, environment critic for the Opposition Wildrose party, said the sales should be at least delayed.

"One of the biggest impediments to getting access to international markets is our environmental record," he said. "We do ourselves a disservice when we have an opportunity to do a little boasting on how well we take care of the environment — and here's an opportunity."

Liberal Laurie Blakeman suggested that with so much energy development already in Alberta, there's no need to tear up 1,700 hectares of the last remaining habitat for mountain caribou.

"We can afford to slow down on development," she said. "The government does not need to be leasing that land out right now — they could be saying, no, we're going to set that aside and just leave it alone for 10 years."

Alberta Energy has begun lease sales for seven plots of land north of Grande Cache that is crucial habitat for the survival of two mountain caribou herds. The news came just days after a federal panel of scientists concluded that all Alberta's mountain caribou herds should be considered endangered — the highest level of threat in Canadian law.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada found the population of the herds has declined by 60 per cent over the last decade, mostly attributable to industrial development.

About 500 hectares for sale are in the range of the 100-member Redrock-Prairie Creek herd. Half of that herd's entire range has already been affected by development, according to data compiled by Global Forest Watch.

The other 1,200 hectares is on the range of the 78-animal Narraway herd. More than 81 per cent of that range is already disrupted.

The leases in question amount to 14 per cent of the total amount of land on the block in the current auction — one of 13 such auctions held by the province so far this year.

Alberta Energy officials have said energy leases on caribou range are sold with guidelines on how companies can minimize disruption.

Anglin said that given the steady decline of Alberta's herds, those guidelines aren't working.

"What we need to figure out is if it is appropriate to develop, which we don't know yet. We have to come up with guidelines and rules that actually do work."

Notley said a good start would be to declare a moratorium on industrial leases in mountain caribou territory, similar to what has been done on two nearby boreal caribou ranges.

"If the government is truly committed to protecting the caribou, that is what they need to do. None of what they've done up to this point is going to do it."

Her call was supported by Fiona Schmiegelow, a senior biologist who spoke from Whitehorse, Yukon, where she was attending a conference on caribou conservation.

"Considering new mineral allocations in ranges where populations are experiencing precipitous decline ... it seems counter to the direction and need for caribou conservation and is likely to lead to greater conflict in these areas. It's going to create a lot less flexibility to finding solutions," she said.

A federal recovery plan for mountain caribou is nearly complete, Schmiegelow said. That plans stipulates a target of 65 per cent of a herd's range should consist of usable habitat.

Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association said there are ways all interests could be accommodated. They include longer-distance directional drilling, pooled leases and aggressive reforestation "to ensure intact habitat is maintained and far more is restored than is now occurring."

"All this is possible, significant energy resources could still be extracted, and caribou would have a future there."

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