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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Killing wolves to protect caribou in the tar sands -- what's that about?

Elizabeth Shope

Posted April 17, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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Last week, DeSmog Blog released a video entitled Cry Wolf: An Unethical Oil Story. In the film, scientists and other experts discuss how the government of Alberta has been shooting and poisoning wolves – blaming them for the shrinking of Alberta’s caribou herds to near extinction – rather than protecting caribou habitat. The loss of caribou habitat from the destruction and fragmentation of the Boreal forest for conventional oil and gas development, unsustainable logging practices, and tar sands extraction is the real reason for the diminishing caribou herds. As I blogged last summer, Alberta has spent more than $1 million to kill 500 wolves in the Little Smoky Region – shooting them from helicopters and poisoning them with strychnine. The oil industry shouldn’t be able to get away with killing wolves when it is their own destruction of habitat that is the heart of the problem.

Meanwhile, tar sands extraction has been running rampant in Alberta with little being done to mitigate the environmental impacts. More than one and a half million barrels per day of the heavy, tar-like, nearly solid substance called bitumen are being extracted from beneath the Alberta’s boreal forest to be turned into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. To date, the vast tar sands mines have created 65 square miles of toxic waste lakes, where migratory birds – in the hundreds and thousands – have come to perish. Industry has hopes of doubling tar sands extraction in the next decade, which is a scary prospect given the lack of environmental regulations, and the fact that Alberta’s land use planning process, including for the Lower Athabasca region – the area where the tar sands are located – appears to have ground to a halt.

So instead of curbing tar sands extraction or at least working to make it occur in a more sustainable manner such that the forests could support healthy caribou herds, Alberta plans to kill thousands of wolves. While wolves do prey on caribou, conservation biologist Samuel Wasser states that caribou only comprise 10% of wolves’ diets. Wolves and caribou have coexisted for thousands of years without a problem; it is the unmanaged industrial developments including tar sands extraction that are the real problem. Wasser’s study also explains that humans are a much more significant problem for caribou than wolves in the tar sands region of Alberta. Increased human presence was associated with poorer nutrition and greater stress for the caribou – and significant human presence is required for extracting tar sands. 

Despite the evidence presented in studies like Wasser’s, Environment Canada’s draft caribou recovery plan, published last fall, puts undue attribution for the dwindling caribou herds on predators like wolves.

The plan marks caribou habitat management as “urgent” and states that:

Boreal caribou are at greater risk of survival and tend to avoid associated industrial infrastructure such as roads, timber harvest cut-blocks, pipelines, oil and gas well sites, and geophysical exploration lines up to 500m (Environment Canada, 2011b). These developments reduce the suitability of adjacent habitat, increase rates of predation, increase access to the land for hunting opportunities and can act as barriers to boreal caribou movement.

However, it goes on to say that:

Across most of their distribution, human-induced habitat alterations have caused an imbalance in predator-prey relationships resulting in unnaturally high predation rates. This is the major factor affecting the viability of boreal caribou populations. [bold added for emphasis]

And the reality is that Alberta has carried out wolf killing plans, but has not carried out habitat management plans. Environment Minister Peter Kent agreed with calculations that thousands of wolves would likely be killed in Alberta under the plan.

Congressional Republicans are once again trying to force an approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline – which President Obama has rejected, the U.S. Senate has rejected, and to which the people of the United States have firmly said no. In addition to putting two thousand miles of land and water at risk along its route, including the farms and ranches of people like Randy Thompson and Julia Trigg Crawford, Keystone XL would facilitate an expansion of tar sands extraction, making the U.S. complicit in Alberta’s plans to shoot and poison thousands of wolves.

Instead of turning to ever dirtier sources of fossil fuels like tar sands, it’s time to get serious about our clean energy future. The upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit is an exciting opportunity for the world to take renewable energy to the next step. As my colleague Jake Schmidt writes, it’s time to “triple down” on renewable electricity by tripling the amount of renewable energy in the electricity mix. So let’s triple down towards a clean energy future, rather than doubling back towards our dirty energy past. One critical step is saying no to expanded tar sands extraction, no (again) to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and for Alberta to clean up existing tar sands operations, restore and protect caribou habitat, and stop killing wolves.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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