The provincial government is moving forward with a plan in northwestern Alberta that has First Nations and Métis hunters and trappers worried about how it will effect them.
The “caribou range plan” covers millions of hectares of land. One hectare equals 2.47 acres.
Alberta says the plan is meant to address the declining number of caribou.
But Graham Courtoreille, 69, from the Beaver Ranch Indian Reserve, near Fort Vermilion, believes the plan has nothing to do with protecting the herds but more to do with the government’s plan to turn his traditional territory into parkland and wash away Indigenous land rights.
“Sure it could be good for the Native people but you know yourself the federal government has been trying to take away our treaty rights,” says Courtoreille.
“I don’t trust Trudeau, I never trusted his dad, and I don’t trust him.”
The woodland caribou are considered threatened under both the federal Species at Risk Act and Alberta’s Wildlife Act.
The provinces caribou range plan is home to several First Nation communities and Métis settlements, along with six municipalities. In Alberta there is provincial legislation governing Metis settlements that is similar in many ways to the Indian Act.
There are 15 caribou ranges in total in the province. In northwestern Alberta, the area could be affected by four caribou range plans; the Bistcho, Yates, Chinchaga and Caribou Mountains range.
The largest range is the Caribou Mountains Range, measuring 2,065,873 hectares in size.
Parkland status is one tool government could use
A working document at the moment, referred as “Alberta’s Draft Provincial Woodland Caribou Range Plan,” proposes to restore the declining caribou population while meeting Canada’s requirements under the Species at Risk Act.
According to one of the province’s primary guiding documents to deal with woodland caribou recovery efforts, herds in Alberta are declining at high rates.
But for Courtoreille and for other trappers in the region, the caribou are not threatened.
“There’s more caribou than elk and moose in this country,” says Courtoreille.
Owen Sabiston, a retired fish and wildlife game warden who worked with the province for 30 years, echoes Courtoreille’s concerns.
“I have a problem with them calling it a recovery plan because they don’t have baseline numbers of the caribou in the wild, they don’t know how many caribou there were 50 years ago,” said Sabiston about the province’s Environment and Parks reports.
He believes the province lacks scientific proof and does not have any data on the caribou prior to the 1990s.
A spokesperson with the Alberta Environment and Parks stated that although one conservation method may include converting some land into parkland, it is only one tool at their disposal. They can also utilize restoration, land-use planning and habitat protection. The province’s goal is to work with each individual community to see what tools are most appropriate.
Courtoreille says he just found out about the government’s plan recently.
“Nobody knew about it, the trappers didn’t know, [and] there are still people who don’t know nothing about it.”
However, the department said it met with First Nations and Métis groups in Alberta in early 2017, along with other stakeholders in the forestry and energy sector and with environmental organizations during their Phase 1 process, which informed the draft plan. Information sessions and workshops were also held in various municipalities and meetings with individual communities upon request.
Graham Courtoreille, a trapper from the Beaver Ranch Indian Reserve
Trappers scared, caribou fine, say advocates
Courtoreille says there are hundreds of trappers and mill workers scared of what’s to come.
Calvin Bulldog, 49, from Beaver First Nation is another concerned trapper.
Bulldog’s trapline is near Caribou Mountains, neighbouring Wood Buffalo National Park. It’s a trapline that has been passed down for generations. Bulldog said if he loses his trapline, he will have nothing. He said it was only recently he learned about the province’s caribou range plan. Until APTN Investigates informed Bulldog how much land could be affected in his region, he said he had no idea.
The Northwest Species at Risk Committee (NSWAR), a grassroots organization made up of six northwestern municipalities, formed as a means to give local residents a voice to do with caribou recovery, released a news release asserting how the government’s plan could sterilize the region’s resources and devastate its economy.
According to the NSWAR, 650 forestry jobs could be at risk, $1 billion of annual revenue in timber harvest, gas and oil fields would be greatly impacted, as well as other industries such as trapping, outfitting and agriculture.
“We cannot understand why the provincial government wants to add more park space in our area,” wrote NSWAR chair Lisa Wardley. In northwest Alberta, the province is already home to Wood Buffalo National Park and Caribou Mountains Wildland Park.
NSWAR is currently circulating a petition, asking concerned citizens to submit a statement declaring their opposition about the government’s plan and mail it to their provincial and/or federal environment ministers.
Chief Trevor Mercredi of Beaver First Nation says his community will be meeting with the province to address their concerns.
“From what I’m being told, the province cannot enact any sort of legislation that will impact our rights. But in saying that, we do have our eyes and ears open,” says Mercredi.
Province said Indigenous rights will not be affected
The spokesperson with Environment and Parks said they want to hear all concerns including those from Indigenous and Métis communities and from the Northwest Species at Risk Committee.
The province also said they acknowledge the significance of Indigenous and Métis hunting and fishing rights, knowing it is part of their cultural heritage.
When asked specifically what will become of fishing and hunting rights for Indigenous and Métis people, the spokesperson said their rights will not be affected
“The traditional Indigenous hunting rights are not impacted by any of our range planning. They have that as part of their treaty rights and that’s protected by the constitution. We have no jurisdiction over Indigenous hunting.”
The spokesperson also said no decisions have been made as to which conservations tools will apply in the region.
The last information session for Phase 2 wrapped up this week, and now the province will move into Phase 3, which will lead to the province’s final caribou management plan.