“A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?

Guest Blog: Alberta Environment and Parks is requesting public input into its woodland caribou range planning efforts. The deadline for input is July 27, 2017, but AEP will accept comments about specific plans after that date. In the following essay biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) questions the whole premise of the exercise and suggests a relatively simple solution that would save a lot of money, time and effort, and allow Alberta to get on with business. Loren’s previous essays posted here include: The Inequity of “Balance”, Tracks and Spur, Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use and Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish.

“A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2017

Caribou populations are cratering in Alberta; this is evident even to the congenitally imperceptive amongst us. As we prevaricate, mumble, delay and equivocate, a day of reckoning approaches, morally, legally and financially. What do we do about caribou?

Alberta has a natural resources inventory, bequeathed to us from the federal government under the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement of 1930. Among other things this transfer included fish, wildlife, native plants and their habitats. I suppose it was implicit in the agreement we, as a province, would look after these natural resource treasures.

Clear cut

If we are not willing to protect caribou habitat, why are we bothering to protect caribou?

Subsequent agreements committed the province to protect and maintain biodiversity (i.e. National Wildlife Policy, 1990; United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, 1992; Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, 1995; Alberta’s Commitment to Sustainable Resource and Environmental Management, 1999; Responsible Actions, 2009). The federal government has been clear about these responsibilities at the same time as being complicit in enjoying rents, royalties and taxes from resource exploitation.

Every bureaucracy has a process for acquiring things and then for writing things off when an inventory item is outdated, redundant, broken or lost. It keeps things in balance to have such a system, an accounting of sorts.

In hundreds of bathrooms, outdoor privies and in many offices hangs a plaque with the pithy little saying: “The job isn’t finished until the paperwork is done.” Indeed! When we have failed to care for our inventory of biodiversity, as evidenced by declines and losses of caribou, grizzly bears, bull trout, cutthroat trout, Arctic grayling, Athabasca rainbow trout, sage grouse and a host of others, the paper work is incomplete.

Are we at a point for caribou where we have run them out of options since we can’t, or won’t entertain a change in our business as usual mentality? Maybe it’s time to own up to the reality that we are unable to maintain caribou and finalize the paperwork.

A Modest Proposal for preventing caribou from being a burden on industry, corporations and the government, and for making their habitat more financially beneficial to the public.

Sometimes we can have our cake and eat it too, but we cannot, it seems, have caribou and logging, oil and gas, roads and other developments in the same time and space. So let’s just say it—cash trumps caribou. If we recognize and endorse the compulsive overvaluation of one segment of the economy over another, the undervalued segment (i.e., caribou) will diminish and disappear.


Is it time to admit that cash trumps caribou?

Wouldn’t it be simpler and more honest just to say, openly and categorically—caribou stand in the way of progress? They will have to join the bison herds, swift fox, greater prairie chicken, plains grizzly, plus tracts of native prairie and aspen parkland. We must maintain the economic engines that give us our good life, even if it is an unexamined one.

As a competent bureaucracy the Alberta government has forms for nearly everything, included the FIN 37. A FIN 37 allows one to write off an inventory item, squaring the books. So, let’s get on with finalizing the paperwork on caribou, completing the “write-off” forms, paving the way for expanded economic activity in caribou range.

Write-off forms can be quite simple to complete. A FIN 37 needs only the following information:

When inventory was acquired: Caribou were acquired, from the Federal government, in the Natural Resources Transfer Act (Alberta) of 1930. Described as An Act respecting the transfer of the natural resources of Alberta,” presumably the act included caribou, along with oil, gas, minerals, timber and the like.

How many received: The population numbers are unknown, but caribou were common from the US border to the Northwest Territory border, with the exception of the grassland and the aspen parkland.

Description: Caribou are medium sized members of the deer family, both sexes have antlers and have boreal and mountain ecotypes.” Caribou are featured on our 25-cent piece and are closely related to reindeer, known by many children as the species that pull Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.

Reason for write-off: Economic interests supersede ecological values; cumulative effects make maintenance of existing herds expensive, complicated and onerous; we have already gone too far with development (and commitments to industry) and the prognosis is that caribou will disappear shortly; and, not enough people care about caribou to matter.

Following this information on the form, there needs to be a signature, probably from the premier of Alberta and a copy must be sent to the prime minister of Canada. The paper work is done and business can get on without another impediment.

Imagine the money we will save by not having to control wolves, fence in pregnant caribou cows, fly inventories to catalogue the demise, hold meetings to discuss how little we need to do (and are doing), restore the linear footprint of old seismic trails, eliminate restrictive speed limits on resource roads, and employ biologists who have no hope, under the current economic regime, of saving caribou.

Economic moralists will tell us that to mourn the loss of caribou is just nostalgia. They would have disappeared anyway. Our lives will not be diminished with their demise. Put up a monument, with an image of a caribou in bronze. We could have a little hand-wringing ceremony at the monument’s unveiling, where the champions of industry and government could wipe away a few false tears over the caribou’s demise. It might seem momentarily hypocritical but then we could get on with the important things of converting our landscapes and natural resources into tangible, fungible symbols of prosperity.

Now, lest you think I’m serious, Jonathan Swift wrote about a similar seemingly intractable problem in Ireland in a pamphlet in 1729 entitled A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as “A Modest Proposal”. In it Swift suggests the poverty stricken Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their surplus children as food for purchase by the richer class of society. He points out that this “will not be liable to the least objection.”

Of course the proposition to raise children to feed rich people is (and was) morally reprehensible. Swift’s use of satire was meant to focus on why such stark poverty, reducing people to situations of basic survival, existed in the Ireland of the day. Swift recognized the utility of satire is to rock people out of their complacency and to get them mad enough to do something about a dire situation.

It is the same for Albertans and caribou. We continue to be deluded that all our problems will have solutions—that our pace of development will continue and we can salvage some vestiges of biodiversity. The mantra is we can have it all and it is simply a wait for the technology that will allow us to erase our footprint. This is just cynical public relations to calm the environmentalists.

What does “Species at Risk” mean to a species at risk?
It might be helpful to think of species at risk designated as “threatened” or “endangered” in the same context as a fire alarm signalling an impending disaster. The difference between the two in Alberta is that when the alarm is sounded for a species we don’t send out the fire truck. Instead we begin a glacially slow, ponderously bureaucratic, unnecessarily methodical process of deciding if the fire is really burning, how bright the flames are, whether we agree the fire is significant and if putting out the fire might unduly impact economic development.

By the time we respond, if we do at all, the fire consuming a species in trouble has become a conflagration, with limited control ability. Onto the blaze we bravely pile status reports, recovery plans, management plans and the minutes from endless meetings with “affected” parties, few of whom speak in favor of the imperiled species. Rarely does any water materialize from these delaying tactics to quell the fire.

The recipe for the species recovery planning “cake” can be disheartening: Take a province and all that province means, with communities and caring people with compassion and a habit of helping one another—ignore all this, add too much money, crank up the economy, manage through ideology, ignore science, forget local interests, develop a slavish devotion to corporate interests—then shake, stir, and bake until ruined.

For caribou there is a forest of paper, starting in the late 1970s, on management plans, status reports, designations (finally as “threatened”), operating guidelines for industry, restoration planning, conservation strategies, and recovery plans; all overseen by government, multi-stakeholder committees and task forces; and aided by predation studies, multiple population inventories, linear feature assessments, radio telemetry providing tracking of populations, and other research studies too numerous to mention.

To give credit where credit may be due, few other species in Alberta have had so much attention lavished on them. However, in the terse, clinical language of the last status report, “caribou range is continuing to recede.”

Caribou Recovery Efforts—Action, Inertia or Foot-Dragging?
Aldo Leopold observed, “It is important that the inventory [of imperilled species] represent not merely a protest of those privileged to think, but an agreement of those empowered to act.” It would seem we have considerable talent in talking about the issue, but examples of action are harder to discern.

To lose the abundance of biodiversity in Alberta, within a century of our tenure, to the demands of the corporate world (and to disconnected shareholders) is comparable to gathering all the books from every library for shredding to relieve a temporary paper shortage.

A close examination of the situation with caribou shows a progressive extirpation of caribou from southwestern Alberta northward, over a 70-year timespan. Some of this extirpation is now lost to the collective memory. Where it is remembered, the loss of caribou is alternately blamed on wolves, sometimes on hunting. If hunting was an issue, the season for caribou ended in 1981 and most First Nations have voluntarily stopped harvest. These are the only levers available to provincial biologists and First Nations peoples to deal with the plight of caribou.

Rarely does it register that hunting and predation are proximate causes, and not the ultimate causes related to roading, industrial-scale logging, oil and gas exploration and development and sometimes fire.

A caribou is a survivor, adapted to deep snow with large, crescent shaped hooves that act as snowshoes. A caribou does not fear deep snow; with its large hooves and long legs it floats over the stuff. It subsists, overwinter, on both terrestrial and arboreal lichens, themselves a product of old-growth forests.

Lichens grow slowly and so lose the race to gain enough living space to other plants, except in old-growth, undisturbed forests. As the bulk of winter fuel for caribou, a diet of lichens seems like a poor choice, but who are we to argue with the millennia of evolution and adaptive strategies? Selecting lichens allows caribou to spatially separate themselves from other ungulates, like moose and deer, reduce competition and, more importantly, avoid predation from wolves.

Most important to caribou survival is space, a mechanism to constantly provide habitat choice but also predator avoidance.

Our development footprint is extensive, pervasive and growing in caribou habitat. As it grows, habitat for caribou shrinks. Caribou, like most wildlife can shift ranges; but with fewer and fewer choices, the options are limited. Linear disturbances (e.g. roads, pipelines, powerlines, and seismic trails) and logged areas reduce habitat effectiveness substantially as caribou avoid them and these features also allow predators, especially wolves, to make inroads to previously “safe” areas.

Some, like an industry spokesman, have castigated the victim with, “Caribou are too dumb to adapt to changing conditions.” It is the start of a disturbing trend with imperilled species—blame the victim. If cutthroat trout weren’t so close to rainbows genetically they wouldn’t be “threatened” now. If caribou evolved faster to keep up with our footprint and wolves they would be prospering instead of disappearing.

I wonder how well that spokesman would adapt if his clothes were taken away and was dropped into a landscape without wheels, central heating and grocery stores, armed with only sharp sticks.

Our management and mitigation mechanisms are, on balance, somewhat half-hearted, given the dismal prognosis for caribou. At best they are designed to buy time for caribou; conversely, they may result in a waste of time and opportunity to deal with the overarching issues.

Predation became a problem with the creation of human-caused landscape changes; it is a response to industrial roading and habitat shifts from logging that favor deer and moose. The shifts in habitat conditions, with more roads and a younger forest gives predators like wolves an unnatural advantage over caribou.

The confinement of pregnant caribou cows behind a predator proof fence is an attempt to allow better recruitment to the population. It smacks of a desperate move, confining wild critters in a zoo-like enclosure. Rather than facilitating recovery, it distances us from allowing caribou to regain a self-sustaining status throughout their range. Like many mitigation techniques, it fails to deal with the ultimate cause of caribou declines, habitat loss from land use. It is the application of a band-aid to the limb of an amputee.

To deal with increased wolf predation we have engaged in a draconian wolf control program. To some the wolf control program of poison, trapping and aerial gunning is cruel, unethical and ineffective. It puts provincial wildlife biologists in an intractable position, of trying to solve a problem that is, at its roots, economic, not biological. Sifting through the ocean with a fork to catch fish might be easier.

The dilemma is viewed as a population problem, when, in reality, it is a habitat problem. The issue isn’t just about a population goal at a point in time; it’s whether there is enough habitat to sustain a population that is large enough to be viable into the future. If we give up on conserving the forests where caribou live, we give up on caribou.

Solving the complex issues of habitat fragmentation, cumulative effects, climate change, carrying capacity, amount of remaining, intact old-growth forest and the space requirements of caribou may have more to do with saving caribou than the stop-gap measure of wolf control.

It comes down to an economic question: Of the billions, trillions or gazillions of dollars of potential wealth in natural gas, oil and bitumen, less so in timber, are we, as a civilized society willing to forgo, delay or reduce our expectations of short term financial return in favor of caribou and their habitat?

Natural gas, oil and bitumen are not a commodity, like potatoes, that will go bad if left in the ground. Past administrations, especially the Klein government stepped aside from interfering in the industry, letting them set the tone for the pace and extent of extraction. The current Notley government seems more inclined toward the original Lougheed model, of government setting the tone and tenor for industry. Always the visionary, the late Peter Lougheed called for a slow and measured rate of resource extraction, not the gold-rush mentality of the past few decades. Caribou might have appreciated a slower rate of incursion into their habitat.

For forest management, the policy of Forest Management Agreements—giving control of the forest to multi-nationals—has come back to haunt us, caribou being but one example. Logging is based on mill capacity, not the needs of caribou. Forests are a commodity and that commodity needs to be harvested before it goes bad. Old-growth forests with ancient trees festooned with lichens, essential caribou habitat, are just dimensional lumber temporarily standing.

A government biologist, in a moment of candor, remarked, “Logging doesn’t allow for suitable amounts and spatial distribution of appropriate age classes to permit long-term conservation.” In effect, caribou have lost and continue to lose the necessary large tracts of old-growth forest, carpeted with lichens and constituting the moat of space to reduce predation. The end-game, or, the end-of-the-game for caribou is the continuation of current industrial scale logging. Without an aggressive forest conservation strategy there is no caribou habitat and hence, no caribou.

Only three of Alberta’s identified herds of caribou are deemed “stable,” whatever the term means. Some have winked out of existence, even in our national parks. Most herds are plummeting, with population graphs that resemble children’s slides, all downhill. Herds are now largely isolated from one another on diminishing islands of habitat. Where we are at, given all of the work on population status, with most herds, is a very strong sense caribou are in a slow race to oblivion in Alberta. Maintaining the land use status quo means the extirpation of caribou, in a relatively short time frame.

Where does this leave caribou, or how fast will caribou leave us? It is a matter of will and choice. If caribou matter, if enough Albertans say caribou should continue to exist, then the path is clear. We will surrender some of the economic engine operating in the foothills and boreal forest, or at least delay the payback period. But, we need to decide, not simply delay, defray and drag out the decision. For too long, with so many species the answer was more study, more monitoring, more stop gap measures.

As Winston Churchill observed, “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.”

Alberta has to come clean because we can’t have it both ways, have our caribou and eat their habitat with industrial development too.

Choices for Caribou and a Test for Us?
The World’s Doomsday Clock is currently ticking at two and a half minutes to midnight, signalling our potential end in a blinding flash of nuclear explosions. Caribou in Alberta are closer yet to the chiming of midnight and the signal we have erased them and millennia of years of their existence.

John Steinbeck wrote the following and although he didn’t mention caribou they are implicit in his description:

We in the United States have done so much to destroy our own resources, our timber, our land, our fishes that we should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough to envision a continuing economy. With our own resources we have been prodigal, and our country will not soon lose the scars of our grasping stupidity.

Northrup Frye made a similar observation, that Canada is a land of ruins. Harsh examination, but our history is a procession of leave takings. We find a place, use it up and move on. This is no more evident than is shown in an examination of biodiversity resources, both nationally and provincially. If we acknowledge our history, of prioritizing economic development and reflect on the cost of that choice, there is an alternate future to the modest proposal for caribou.

Caribou are like canaries with antlers. They are the flag ship species of the boreal forest and the northern foothills, serving as sentinels marking the changes brought about by the pace and expanding footprint of our economic aspirations.

Death is the name for a landscape or a creature ignored; the future existence of caribou is a test of our commitment to maintaining our biodiversity inventory. For the protection and recovery of caribou, hard but not impossible choices await.

Saving caribou is more than a political decision, one that corporate interests also have to make, and one in which we Albertans have to share. We are all responsible for caribou, through legislation, policy commitment and the ethics of responsible stewardship. No default to a FIN 37 is permissible.

We can neither agree to write off the species, either directly or through benign neglect any more than Jonathan Swift would have agreed to the implementation of his modest proposal. At the heart of this, we are the trustees of a living thing.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Note: Although the AEP deadline for comment on the caribou management process is July 27, 2017, the department is still taking input on specific plans. Go to Alberta’s Action on Caribou: Caribou Range Planning

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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5 Responses to “A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?

  1. J.B. Struthers says:

    If/when our government admits it intends to sacrifice caribou to greed, we can save the money we are currently wasting on the caribou restoration charade (and some wolves as well).

  2. Pingback: Recovering Grizzlies and Caribou | Don Meredith Outdoors


    Such candidness is a breath of fresh air yet it can leave one breathless on dealing with species at risk.

  4. Pingback: Fisheries Management: Complex, Complicated and Poorly Comprehended | Don Meredith Outdoors

  5. Pingback: Nickel and Diming Outdoor Rights | Don Meredith Outdoors

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