Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Caribou In the Oil Sands - What's the REAL story?

I get very frustrated sometimes (okay, ALL the time), when I read things about animal impact up in the oil sands. Why? Because I am the daughter of a forest ranger and I just turned 39 (today in fact!) and I remember stories from 30 years ago about animals disappearing from various regions of alberta. We learned it in school, I heard about it from my dad, it was discussed on the news - I remember because I was fascinated with wildlife. That tends to happen when you grow up having black bears, deer, and moose sleeping in your back yard. that's how I was raised and it has always been of interest to me.

I am also born and raised in Alberta, spending all but 4.5 years of my life in this province. I have friends from all over the area and they too have told me things they remember about growing up here. I have a friend who was born in Fort McMurray and she is over 50 now. She has lived there all her life. She told me many years ago that caribou had been disappearing from the region for as long as she could remember, before the oilsands even started running up there. She also remembers how plants stopped growing and flourishing in certain areas because the oil was so close to the surface, and caribou had already started changing their migration patterns which led to hunters not being able to find them where expected, etc etc. Lots of stories from her youth and teen years and young adult years about caribou and other animal problems BEFORE the oil sands started up, let alone before they became the controversial news topic and talking point they are today.

So what's up with that? I found a recent news story talking about how Oilsands activity is blamed for caribou numbers - you can read it yourself here http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2011/06/22/science-caribou-oilsands.html and there are many many more if you take the time to google it. Tons to choose from. And then I googled "1970 Caribou Fort McMurray" and found some very interesting timeline information. you can view it here http://albertawilderness.ca/issues/wildlife/caribou/history . You will see that man is still blamed largely, but it was logging the first time around, or talk of them moving to BC, but the part to note most is that these record are from the 1920s to 1940s!!!  A railroad built in the mid 60s cuts right through a caribou migration path. Population estimates range from 800 to over 2000 in a span of a few decades, with the number going back and forth, with some regions in the 40s and 50s seeing next to no caribou at all.

Finally in the 1970s there is mention of more oil activity up north. Province wide estimate of 5000 caribou. People spend many many years trying to get the alberta govt to ban hunting, but it doesnt apart from a one year span in the late 40s. Caribou were put on the Endangered Species list in 1985. In 1991 they are put on the Threat list for serious danger of disappearing. In 1993 the LOGGING industry was specifically listed as the main threat to caribou in the province. Finally another estimate of caribou population comes out in 1996 with between 3600 and 6700 individuals (why the big gap, I have no idea) and they are taken off the full threat list but still endangered. In 2000 they are back to threatened but I do not see a population estimate.

In 2001 you see that the Alberta Govt still has not put in all the recommendations from the agreement back in 1996. No surprise there, 5 years pass and little is done. In 2004 it was determined that logging in some areas would be halted for 5 years and the first mention of a big pipeline going in is finally listed - Suncor. In 2005 the provincial estimate is 2500 to 4000 caribou (note, still up from estimates in previous decades but down from the last estimate). In 2006 the Alberta govt goes ahead with a wolf culling program instead of the recommendations from the past 30 or so years.

Now pops up something else I know a lot about - the Mountain Pine Beetle. If you have driven through the BC and Alberta rockies lately, you will notice huge swaths of mountain sides that are completely dead - grey and ugly, or red. This is Mountain Pine Beetle destruction and my dad spend over 20 years trying to work out how to kill the little buggers because they kill trees like termites go through wood. Fire was about the only way to control them but who wants to set fire to forests? Well here we are today with entire gigantic mountain sides totally dead with no animal life inside them, and we are finally turning to burning sections. they were logging them for awhile but the buggies just move on to the next section of forest instead. In 2006 some areas that were not to be logged ended up being logged, forced by the alberta govt according to this link, because of mountain pine beetles. It says that this move was in direct contradiction to the caribou maintenance programs - well let's see how LEAVING it worked out for the forests: This is a photo I took a couple of weeks ago just before the Alberta border in BC;

That should all be green but the grey areas are completely dead trees from Mountain Pine Beetles. A few years ago, half of this was bright red from the dead trees and now they are totally gone. Looks lovely doesnt it? Maybe the caribou would like to live here - or wait, NOT!

In 2009 an avalanche kills the last remaining known caribou herd members in Banff. Pretty much the first time I have seen the banff area mentioned in this list so I have no idea how many were there to begin with. The mountain parks herds are in great decline in other areas like Jasper, with only 4 members in one herd and no reason given. the mountain parks, especially jasper are HUGELY unpopulated and rugged and impossible for people to get through other than a couple of highways and a few dirt roads and a railroad. you have to see this area for yourself in order to understand the immense enormity of it and understand that oil and forestry are NOT going to do much, if any damage to caribou in these areas, yet their numbers are totally pitiful. Why????? This is not fort mcmurray, it's Banff National and Jasper National Park where the amount of forest is astonishing to most people, they cannot fathom it's size even if they do get the chance to visit. I grew up just down the road from an entrance to Jasper park and it's massive with only one way through it by road - so why are caribou numbers in herds there down to FOUR???? Ask yourself that when thinking about how the provincial totals are in the thousands, while there are NONE left in Banff and barely any in Jasper, an area that should be perfect for these creatures and the vast majority of the area has no people or construction or anything in it.

And then we get up to 2012 with no further mention of herd populations. What is the estimate now? I have no idea, the totals range all over the place when i try to google it and look at various wildlife protection sites. So I have no idea. All I can tell you is that news now of oil sands being to blame, when for 50 years before that logging was to blame, and meanwhile herds in beautiful largely untouched areas of the province are lower than ANYWHERE ELSE in their alberta habitats. Then read the news about the oil sands region and think about how stats and words are twisted here and there and wonder why. Im not saying there is no impact, but I find it astonishing how people will run with this and go around talking about how the oilsands have caused herds to diminish, or migration patterns to change, when there is evidence of it happening 30 years before the oil sands development started - and evidence of massive population declines in protected areas like national parks. And the lack of govt reaction and response - and then keep on blaming the oil sands if you feel like it. But dont pretend that you know what you are talking about, please.

I will add here that it reminds me of the talk of global climate change and all the melting that is supposedly going on in the arctic circle. There are tons of Save the Polar Bears campaigns going, demanding changes, tv ads and programs showing polar bears dying of starvation because there is no ice for them to go out on to hunt seals, and swimming for hours and hours in water and exhausting themselves to the point of death because of lack of ice flows to walk on ---- but oh, what's this? Polar bear population estimates are UP? And oh, what's this? there are so many, they are expanding their range continuously into human populated areas? What? But I thought they were all dying? It drives me crazy. I dont know what to believe anymore. One day they are endangered and the next there are far more than first thought. Sounds eerily similar to the plight of the alberta caribou.


  1. No caribou but lots of bear and moose. In fact, they're like dogs in an off-leash park.

  2. It has to be thirty years ago that the East Kootenay region was lamenting the decline of the larger herbivores. Turned out that their good numbers had been due to the many fires in the late 1800's (courtesy the railroad and prospectors) which created large semi-pastures ideal for the big game. With seventy-odd years of fire suppression, these pastures were becoming re-treed, and with a loss of habitat, the number of animals declined.

    Also, when oil and gas exploration began doing seismic, they produced 'cut lines' - long cleared areas - in the bush. Animals began to use the lines for travel and as food sources. Predators went where there food was. So there was a shift as to where population densities were. I understand hunters also figured out the cut line strategy.

    So man's activities can make an impact on animal behaviour, by creating or destroying habitat. The two examples I cite, the animals obviously took advantage of the habitat change.

  3. Thank you Frances. Man certainly has an impact on animals, just as they do on us as well. I lived in the Crowsnest Pass and was impacted by the rise in black bear numbers because one decided that living just outside Blairmore was fun and he would run down my street in the morning, prompting parents to have to wait at the bus stops with their children, always on the watch for the happily marauding bear. My friend's family lives in Vancouver and surrounding areas and there are so many bears, they are coming into people's yards at night. These are areas where her family has lived for decades and they have never had so many problems = and also in an area that has not been expanding so it's not like people moved into the bear territory and bears were forced to move. A lot of these animals are tagged to watch their movements and they are having cubs regularly and then those cubs grow up and move to their own territory and next thing you know, they are in your back yard all the time.

    But back to the caribou, my bf worked on pipelines 20 years ago and he shows me where they built through the rockies and how you cannot even tell where they were - even though it looked a total wreck at the time. But now animals use that long expanse as a gateway to the rockies because even though trees are coming back, it's a lot of different kinds of trees, bushes, other plants and nice open grassy areas for them to walk unencumbered. They love those thoroughfares, created entirely by humans with their 'bad pipelines'. Before that it was all thick forest and contrary to popular belief, a lot of animals do not like that.

    You spoke of fire supression and I talked about that on here a couple of years ago. We visited Banff for a few days and I was shocked at how much forest is actually unhealthy. Pretty much only one kind of tree takes up entire valleys and mountainsides in many areas - the Lodgepole Pine. To people who know nothing about forests but pretend they do, they think the forest looks lush and thick and wonderful - but it is actually totally unhealthy! There should be all sorts of tree types, bushes, flowers, grasses, etc, to feed all of the different kinds of animals and birds. Instead, there is one kind of tree, blocking out sun to the forest floor because they are so close together, and squirrels and rabbits dont even live there anymore. About the only thing you find is the bald eagle, because they can nest up there and have the lakes to themselves for fishing. When there are no small animals, you will not find foxes or coyotes, non-fishing birds like hawks, and then you will not find wolves. There is no grass for deer or moose, no berries for bears, and that's it. Empty mountainsides and valleys = yet from above, photos make the forest look amazing.

    We saw a lot of areas that were burned out a decade ago or so for mountain pine beetle control in Alberta that are looking really pretty now. But the conservation officer told people on our tour that it was a mistake to put out every single fire for the past 30 years or so, because that was nature's way of controlling itself, giving itself a clean slate when problems arose, and now they dont know what to do because it would make many groups go bonkers if they let banff park burn.

    We are trying too hard to fix things sometimes, that's what I see. But in this case, the oil sands area projects began in the 70s, on a small scale, when caribou herds had been skitterish long before that, blame put on the logging industry, and now today the oil sands are blamed entirely. It drives me crazy. I also have a hard time finding information about projects I KNOW are going on up there like caribou crossings where people are not allowed to set foot on them. I have friends who work up there and said the penalty for being caught going on these overpasses and underpasses is being fired and fined. They take it seriously, but you will be hard pressed to find information about that in the news.

  4. I grew up also in Elkwater Alberta where there are sometimes so many elk, they need the herds culled by hunters because the animals are starving without enough food in the cypress hills park region to keep them all fed. But I lived there for 5 years, with more than 1500 elk in the area, and I never laid eyes on a single one. How is that possible? They are good hiders I guess lol. I had moose sleeping in my yard, coyotes running down the road in front of my house, deer walking in my front door, but I never saw an elk ONCE. I saw a lynx snoozing on a rock one day too, an animal that is really hard to find sometimes. But no elk. The first Elk I ever saw was in banff when I was 13 lol. the cypress hills is a large area but not THAT large, yet it managed to hide herds of hundreds of animals for many years, and I suspect the same with caribou. They are similar creatures and like similar terrain.

  5. Thanks for the informative read!



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