The Species At Risk Act and Northern Gateway.

Photo by Yellow Snow Photography |

Photo by Yellow Snow Photography |

The construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline to transport Alberta oil to the ports of British Columbia’s west coast for distribution to Asian markets is ripe with environmental controversy. While proponents of the project tout the world-class safety measures that will prevent environmental catastrophes, it has not eased the plethora of concerns; one of which is the inevitably of accidents based on past oil and pipeline track record. Other concerns are firmly rooted in the probability that construction and operation of the pipeline will degrade BC’s pristine old growth forests and untouched coasts, and disrupt the lives of humans and already threatened species that inhabit the province. Many residents of Canada believe proactive planning needs to be implemented to prevent permanent damage to the species and ecosystems that inhabit the span between Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, BC. Rightly so, given planning and recovery strategies are legally required on behalf of the federal government through the Species at Risk Act (SARA). 

A group of five environment groups - David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace Canada, Sierra Club BC, Wilderness Committee and Wildsight - are filing a lawsuit against the federal government, citing their failure to meet the legal responsibilities under SARA. This lawsuit, which went to court last January, brings attention to the health and survival of four species: the Pacific Humpback Whale, Nechako White Sturgeon, Marbled Murrelet, and the Southern Mountain Caribou. As the coalition notes, each of these species face serious habitat and population impacts from the development and operation of the pipeline. Ecojustice Executive Director Devon Page explained: “The federal government’s chronic delays in producing recovery strategies for Canada’s endangered wildlife are forcing species already struggling to survive to wait even longer for the protection they desperately need. Worse, not having these recovery strategies in place makes it impossible for regulators to consider the full environmental impact of major projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. “

While the aim of the lawsuit is undoubtedly targets the acclaimed federal disregard of their responsibility to the environment, it also begs the question - why these species in particular? As part of a series of articles following each species, the following will depict the weak state of the Southern Mountain Caribou and the threat they face in the event of pipeline expansion.

Species at Risk #1 - The Southern Mountain Caribou

If you have ever had the opportunity to experience the breathtaking vistas and ecology of Jasper, Banff, Mount Revelstoke, or Glacier National Park, you have experienced the habitat of the Southern Mountain Caribou.  While they inhabit such an epic and robust region of Canada, their population has dwindled to numbers that necessitate their title as threatened under SARA. Although this categorization is a red flag that demands our attention to this species, it is also indicative of a larger problem. Since caribou are an indicator species, they reflect the health of their habitat and the flora and fauna they interact with. Generally, if caribou population numbers are weak, so is their habitat (or lack thereof). 

The loss of habitat is the biggest antagonist to thriving and sustainable animal populations globally, and groups note the exacerbation of this issue by the proposed pipeline. Environmental nonprofits have noted that the pipeline could disrupt 214 kilometers of sensitive habitat areas for caribou

Naturally, the Southern Mountain Caribou face predators and threats, such as wolves and avalanches. However, the loss of habitat, greater presence of predators through trails and roads, and increased interaction with human traffic could conceivably magnify the natural rates of population loss.  A pipeline in the region specifically has the potential to affect the Southern Mountain Caribou by increasing mortality and disturbance, both of which are cumulative impacts that magnify over time. Furthermore, the Forest Practices Board of British Columbia has stated, “Natural and anthropogenic disturbance have been shown to influence caribou distribution and movement and development activities have been associated with increased mortality of woodland caribou.

Take Action

While this depiction of the threat faced by the Southern Woodland Caribou is brief and broad, it does beg the question of how these impacts can be mitigated or avoided all together. Proactive planning and strategizing that puts in-the-field tools in place before construction to protect threatened species is a useful mitigation and/or adaptation tool. 

The organizations involved in the lawsuit are no doubt tirelessly working on this case, but what can we, the general public, specifically do? Applying as a volunteer for any of the organizations involved is an excellent way of directly supporting their cause. Alternatively, the following is a list comprised of the David Suzuki Foundation’s suggestions on how to become more informed on this issue and how to apply that knowledge.

  1. Bookmark Environment Canada's Species At Risk Public Registry website.
  2. Visit it every so often to see if there is a consultation on the boreal woodland caribou strategy. If there is, let your voice for habitat conservation be heard!
  3. Request that the federal government include the most recent science, found in the Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Boreal Woodland Caribou, to identify the habitat that caribou need to survive and recover (called 'critical habitat' under the Species At Risk Act.)
  4. Find out what processes are underway in your province or territory, and what opportunities there are for public participation.
  5. Read the David Suzuki Foundation’s news releases and backgrounder about the Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Boreal Woodland Caribou.
  6. Find out events and process that are taking place in your province or community and get involved in the processes that are advocating for Caribou protection.
  7. Write your MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly)! Tell them what you know and what you want. The more people that write, the more attention this issue gets. There is power in numbers.