Photo: Caribou fate in jeopardy as pipeline approved

In our national conversation about the pipeline, it’s time to include caribou and other endangered wildlife. (Credit: USFWS)

Among the many objections to the federal government's conditional approval of Enbridge's Northern Gateway project, little has been said about the fate of animals along the pipeline's path — some of which are threatened with extinction.

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A few weeks before approval of Enbridge's dual pipeline, the recovery strategy for southern mountain caribou released under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) went largely unnoticed. The strategy includes maps of critical habitat the caribou need for survival or recovery. Some areas of critical habitat lie directly on the pipeline route and othersstop just above the pipeline's proposed path.

The SARA's two-pronged approach to identifying and protecting habitat is different from endangered species management under other government regulatory processes, such as environmental assessments and National Energy Board reviews. In reviewing the Enbridge pipeline, the NEB looked primarily at the possibility of reducing threats as its bar for environmental stewardship rather than protecting habitat. The board pointed to monitoring, research and adaptive management as ways to improve mitigation and reduce adverse effects.

Unfortunately, decreasing damaging impacts to habitat and monitoring wildlife numbers, as outlined by the NEB, aren't enough to help these caribou recover. In fact, these approaches will lead to additional habitat loss in ranges where caribou are already at risk of extinction.

Habitat degradation by human activities and the resulting changes in predator-prey dynamics have been the primary causes of decline for southern mountain caribou. If they are to survive and recover, their remaining intact habitat must be protected and damaged habitat restored as the recovery strategy requires.

Southern mountain caribou are not the only wildlife at risk from Canada's increasing push for industrial development. If Canada is truly committed to living up to its responsibility to protect imperilled wildlife, it must demonstrate the political will to implement habitat protection for all at-risk species in the face of "business as usual" development. This seems unlikely when our federal government identifies the habitat the caribou need to survive with one hand and approves a pipeline through it with the other, both within weeks of each other.

In our national conversation about the pipeline, it's time to include caribou and other endangered wildlife.

June 26, 2014

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