Environment Minister Peter Kent needs to wake up and smell the smog. While the government drags its feet organizing, reviewing, editing, and finalizing it’s legally required national caribou recovery strategy, industrial expansion in the Alberta tar sands is taking the species further and further to the brink. And the calls for action are getting louder.

Released to Postmedia News through access to information legislation, a memo prepared within Environment Canada to Environment Minister Peter Kent’s office has detailed the “elevated risk” that threatened populations of boreal caribou in Western Canada will disappear before their natural habitat can be restored by tar sands developers.

 The memo, signed by Colleen Volk, an assistant deputy minister for the department’s environmental stewardship branch, describes the troubling situation:

"All Alberta local populations of boreal caribou are at an elevated risk of extirpation, particularly the seven local populations in the oilsands area. As the restoration of habitat to the stage where it is used again by boreal caribou takes about 50 or more years, management of boreal caribou mortality may be needed over an extended period, particularly for local populations with high levels of disturbed habitat." And that’s only if they ever do return once the trees grow back.  Up until now, there’s little evidence to prove the hypothesis.

The federal government is currently breaking its own endangered species law, which mandates that a national recovery strategy for the symbolic boreal caribou be implemented involving leaving the species’ critical habitat intact. Instead, the government has allowed oil, mining, and timber industry to continue to disturb and destroy the critical old growth forests that the Alberta caribou call home. Various environmental organizations have taken the government to a legal battle, asking the courts to compel Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet to issue an emergency order to protect caribou habitat while the recovery strategy is being coordinated.  

Though the memo mainly discusses the critically troubled tar sands region, the boreal caribou is threatened on a national scale, with industrial expansion leading to the degradation of old growth forest stands across Canada, and thus to caribou habitat destruction. Various caribou populations are listed as threatened or vulnerable in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Labrador, as well as Alberta.

Despite this, the memo describes Kent’s dismissal of the Alberta caribou concerns because he had determined that the species was not really threatened on a national scale. In the meantime, the Alberta government has turned to a bloody and untenable strategy to maintain caribou populations – wolf culling. Amidst all this, Kent’s office has stated that: “The minister is more concerned with getting the strategy right than meeting arbitrary time lines.”

These timelines are not arbitrary. As each month passes, caribou populations being pushed further and further to the brink, and more and more old growth forest are being degraded. Simon Dyer, the director of policy for the Alberta-based environmental organization the Pembina Institute, has said: “Time is of the essence. We are losing habitat protection every day.”

 Kent’s insightful, illuminating, response?

He says finalizing the recovery strategy is a “complex” issue.