Conservation Agreement signed between Alberta and Canada for declining woodland caribou across the province

EDMONTON, AB – The federal and provincial governments signed a Conservation Agreement for the recovery of woodland caribou in Alberta on October 23, 2020. The Agreement, carried out under Section 11 of the Species At Risk Act (SARA), commits Alberta to a framework for completing range plans, which are key to long-term recovery planning for caribou, and commits Canada to important funding support to see these recovery actions implemented. 

The agreement references a plan to incorporate recommendations from Task Forces made up of diverse perspectives into range plans, and consider those socio-economic impacts and benefits of having these plans in place. The success of caribou recovery actions will require engagement and collaboration from Indigenous peoples and stakeholders, including local municipalities, non-governmental organizations, industry, and other land-users. CPAWS has already participated in three of these Task Forces. CPAWS considers this multi-stakeholder engagement in the development of range plans to be crucial, and we look forward to continuing to participate. 

CPAWS is pleased that the Agreement commits to “conserving, recovering, and maintaining critical habitat, as identified in the recovery strategies, in all of Alberta’s woodland caribou local population ranges [as] the immediate priority.” Federal recovery strategies, as referenced in the Agreement, identify a habitat target of approximately achieving at least 65% of any given caribou range as undisturbed. This threshold gives caribou a chance at having enough space to hide from predators and avoid alternate prey species, like moose and deer. All caribou ranges in Alberta have a long way to go before meeting this mark–the Little Smoky range, for instance, is estimated as 1% undisturbed. 

Habitat protection will be a key tool to achieve this broad goal. Unfortunately, the Agreement does not explicitly commit to using protected areas to conserve habitat. Instead, the Agreement commits to using “protective notations”, which are weak temporary regulatory tools and easily undone. CPAWS will continue to advocate for use of permanent and conservation-focused tools, including Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), to protect caribou habitat from destruction. Habitat restoration will also be an important tool to achieve at least 65% undisturbed ranges. We are pleased to see that the Agreement commits to widespread restoration of disturbed habitat across the province and to try and keep those restored areas undisturbed in the future, so efforts are not undermined by thoughtless development.

The Agreement is, unfortunately, weakened by long timelines for development, finalization, and implementation for caribou range plans. These timelines were a major point of concern for CPAWS when a draft version of the Conservation Agreement was shared for public consultation last year–frustratingly, the final timelines are even farther off in the distance than the proposed dates in the draft. Even the long-term target for naturally self-sustaining populations is 50-100 years from now. These long timelines are troubling for a species that continues to experience significant year-to-year declines, and begs the need for interim measures to prevent further destruction of caribou habitat before range plans are in place. 

Another significant change to the agreement is the removal of the commitments to adjust harvesting patterns and harvest volumes in Forest Management Plans to support caribou recovery. This commitment was included in the draft version of the Conservation Agreement, which CPAWS saw as a critical step in developing range plans. The loss of this commitment is disappointing, and we encourage continued discussions with forestry companies to find a balance between caribou recovery and sustainable harvest levels. 

Finally, we emphasize that the Conservation Agreement does not, under the Species At Risk Act, protect against an emergency protection order unless it suitably demonstrates protection of critical habitat. CPAWS will closely follow the development and finalization of range plans, which must include tools for protecting and conserving critical habitat, to ensure they are completed, at the very latest, by the proposed timelines.

Woodland caribou ranges in Alberta: 

There are fifteen caribou herds in Alberta that are under provincial jurisdiction to manage to self-sustaining populations. These fifteen caribou herds include both “boreal” and “southern mountain” caribou ecotypes of woodland caribou.


Map of Woodland caribou ranges in Alberta

Map 1: All woodland caribou herd ranges in Alberta. There are two unique kinds of woodland caribou: boreal and mountain caribou. We are lucky to have both!




Gillian Chow-Fraser
Boreal Program Manager, CPAWS Northern Alberta
[email protected]