Minister of Environment and Climate Change must recommend a safety net order to protect boreal caribou herds in northeastern Alberta.

Ecojustice is going to court to protect five herds of boreal caribou in Alberta: the Red Earth, Richardson, West Side Athabasca River, East Side Athabasca River, and Cold Lake herds.

On behalf of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, Alberta Wilderness Association, and the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice launched a lawsuit aimed at compelling the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to recommend a safety net order to protect five boreal caribou herds under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Boreal caribou are listed as threatened under the Act. This means that, unless something is done to protect it, this iconic population is at-risk of becoming endangered, at which point extinction in Canada is considered imminent.

But while boreal caribou across the country face pressing threats, provinces have failed to take meaningful steps to protect boreal caribou.

Habitat deterioration is the number one threat to boreal caribou populations, which need large, intact areas of old growth forest and wetlands to survive. When this habitat is disturbed or fragmented, it limits the caribou’s ability to move and forage for food, and makes them more vulnerable to predators.

In northeastern Alberta in particular, a combination of tar sands development, forest harvesting, and other industrial activities critically threatens herds’ survival.

In a progress report released in April 2018, the Government of Canada found that critical habitat for boreal caribou was not adequately protected in any province. A follow-up report, released in December 2018, re-affirmed these findings.

Together with its clients, Ecojustice say that the federal government must step in where Alberta has failed to protect boreal caribou.

If the Minister of Environment and Climate Change finds that a province’s laws do not effectively protect critical habitat for a species a risk, the law says the minister must recommend Cabinet issue a safety net order.

For boreal caribou in northeastern Alberta, a safety net order would enable the government to extend federal protection to the herds’ critical habitat, and help this iconic population recover and survive.

Why is Ecojustice involved?

Boreal caribou are an iconic species with great ecological and cultural significance.

Boreal caribou are deeply interconnected with the forests and wetlands where they live. In fact, these caribou are also known as boreal bellwethers because we can learn so much about the health of an entire ecosystem just by examining how this single species fares.

This also means that, when we protect boreal caribou, we automatically end up protecting the boreal zone, a vast ecosystem that plays an important global role in storing carbon, purifying air and water, and regulating the climate. 

Boreal are also important culturally. Many people living in Canada recognize caribou as the antlered animal found on the Canadian quarter, but their significance runs far deeper than that. For many Indigenous peoples, caribou have great cultural and spiritual importance, and are an important resource.

What would a win mean?

If successful, this case will force the minister to recommend Cabinet issue a safety net order to protect critical habitat for boreal caribou herds in northeastern Alberta under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Our hope is that Cabinet would accept that recommendation and follow through with issuing and implementing the order. If this were to happen, it would not only establish much-needed protection for boreal caribou habitat, but also set an important legal precedent.

To date, the government has never issued a safety net order to protect critical habitat for species at risk.

Safety net orders are specifically designed for situations like this, so that when provinces fail to protect a species, the federal government can step in. Securing a safety net order for boreal caribou could pave the way for future orders for other species at risk in dire need of protection.

Photo of caribou by peupleloup, via Flickr. Image obtained under Creative Commons.