Canadian environmentalists are reeling after the Alberta government on Wednesday began auctioning off thousands of acres of pristine wooded mountains and foothills — a crucial habitat for caribou — to energy companies for the extraction of oil and gas.
The decision to sell off the land came Tuesday, just days after a federal panel warned that the area was one of the last undisturbed habitats for caribou, and that caribou herds in Alberta are in danger of disappearing completely because of decades of energy development.
Environmentalists say this auction is the latest that shows Alberta’s government is more interested in the unimpeded development of its oil sands — bitumen-rich deposits that have been increasingly mined for oil in recent years — than it is in protecting the province’s vast wildlife habitats.
Oil sands development has alarmed environmentalists on a number of fronts. Scientists have linked the process to a wide swath of land contaminated by mercury in Alberta. Some say it has health effects on humans.
About two-thirds of the block of land being auctioned off on Wednesday is expected to disturb the area inhabited by the Narraway caribou herd, which numbers about 96 animals, Canada’s environmental agency said. That area is already more than 80 percent disturbed by human development, according to the nonprofit organization Global Forest Watch. The other third will affect the 125-strong Red Rock–Prairie Creek herd, which has already had 50 percent of its habitat disturbed.
The area now being auctioned off, about 4,200 acres in total, is some of the last remaining caribou-populated land in Alberta that has not been leased to oil sands producers.
A federally appointed scientific panel ruled earlier in May that the caribou on those lands should be considered endangered, because their population had fallen by nearly 60 percent in just the last 10 years.
Many environmentalists blame the development of the oil sands and other energy resources for that steep decrease.
But the herds are not currently on the endangered list. Mike Feenstra, spokesman for the province’s regulatory authority Alberta Energy, told the Toronto Star newspaper that current regulations ensure that the energy industry minimizes damage to caribou habitat.
Feenstra could not be reached for comment for this story.
Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist at the Alberta Wilderness Foundation, said the regulations are not significant enough to protect the animals. Energy development has cut off migration paths for caribou, making it hard for them to move from mountains to foothills during the harsh winter, she said.
Campbell also said that even if forest-destroying development is remediated with new plantings, the new habitat is less ideal for caribou.
“Industry disturbance creates new, young forest where deer and moose proliferate, and that brings wolves, and also creates pathways for wolves to find caribou,” she said. “This disturbance is really making it harder for them to survive.”