Assessments in the oil sands: Are they too late to save the caribou?

Alberta Energy outlines the process for setting up an oil sands mining or extraction site on its website in a section titled “Oil Sands 101”. This title is quite apt, since the process is indeed of a difficulty level comparable to that of a beginner level class. Four stages are outlined: stage 1 consists of obtaining rights to the land and exploration, stage 2 encompasses everything from project approval, where EIA occurs, to the operational phase of the project, stage 3 includes royalties and refining and stage 4 is the shut-down process (1). Most land with the potential to contain oil sands is public property, in other words, it belongs to the Provincial Crown (1). Mineral Rights for parcels of land can be purchased from the crown via Alberta Energy (1). The process of purchasing rights is outlined in the Alberta Oil Sands Tenure Guidelines (2). However, while this process does not require any assessments of potential social or environmental impacts, obtaining rights to the land does allow exploration work to take place and allows construction of extraction facilities to begin (1,2). This kind of exploration work entails land clearing for roads and pipelines and also some drilling at the site in question (1, 3). However, while work that begins at this stage in the project is not deemed harmful enough to require an assessment, it spells out many problems for woodland caribou (3, 4, 5). The issues are well summarized in the last few minutes (starting around minute 39) of the Nature of Things episode “Billion Dollar Caribou”.

Billion Dollar Caribou

Woodland caribou are very sensitive to any disturbance of their forest habitat: it has been demonstrated that caribou avoid developments, keeping a buffer of at least 500m away from any roads (6). While one road may not seem problematic, the encroachment of a lot of development into caribou land decreases the amount of land usable by the caribou and increases their densities in the remaining suitable habitats, making them more vulnerable to predators (6). This is exactly what is happening in the Little Smoky area, where the caribou herd is quickly dwindling due to a huge increase in development (3,4,5,7). The following map (8) shows all of the new roads that have been constructed in the Little Smoky area pre-2005 (purple) and post-2005 (black). The pale grey area corresponds to prime caribou habitat, and as it can be seen in this map, since 2005, most of the development taking place has been encroaching on this prime caribou habitat (8). The Alberta Caribou Recovery Plan, written in the Summer of 2005,  had declared the Little Smoky herd to be at immediate risk for extirpation and called for a moratorium on all timber and mineral allocations in this area until a range plan, which would designate which areas needed to be conserved, could be developed (7). However, new oil sands developments were permitted in the little Smoky area post 2005, and it is only now that the herd has dwindled down to some 80-100 individuals that Alberta Energy has finally agreed to halt the sale of new mineral rights leases in Little Smoky until the range plan is developed (3, 4, 7).

What does this tell us from an EIA point of view? From an efficiency point of view it does not make sense to perform an EIA on all of the initial exploratory development. However, it is obvious that the combination of all of these small developments is having a huge impact on caribou. Cumulative effects have not been addressed, and the caribou are suffering as a result. What seems to be missing in this instance is a Strategic Environmental Assessment for the oil sands areas in order to determine which areas can be exploited without compromising the caribou or other VECs. This SEA would, of course, have to address cumulative effects. What is interesting is that a framework for conducting such a study already exists: Alberta’s Land-use framework. This framework proposes the creation of land use plans in seven new land-use regions, seen in the image, delimited based on Alberta’s different watersheds (9). These plans will propose means to use the land efficiently while meeting both development and conservation goals (9). The framework states the intention to use cumulative effects management and monitoring to meet these goals (9). Unfortunately, as with the caribou range plans, these land-use plans appear to be very slow in the making. Only the Lower Athabasca region plan has been completed and planning in all the regions except for South Saskatchewan has not even begun (10). One would hope that these planning tools will be completed before it is too late for the caribou and all other VECs at risk.


1- Alberta Energy. (2013) Oil sands 101. Retrieved from:

2- Alberta Energy. (August 14th 2009) Alberta Oil Sands Tenure Guidelines: Principles and Procedures. Retrieved from:

3-Weber,B. (February 6th, 2013) “Environmentalists press Alberta to stop oil leases on caribou range” Globe and Mail. Retrieved from:

4- Alberta Wilderness Association (May 3rd, 2013) “Alberta Defers New Energy Leasing in Two Caribou Herd Ranges”. Retrieved from:

5- Weber, B. (December 23rd, 2012) “Trapper laments destruction of Alberta forest, caribou habitat” The Canadian Press. Retrieved from:

6- Dyer, S. et al. (2002) “Quantifying barrier effects of roads and seismic lines on movements of female woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta” Journal of Canadian Zoology. Vol. 80, pp. 839-845.

7- Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Team. (2005) “Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan 2004/5-2013/14”. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Fish and Wildlife Division, Alberta Species at Risk Recovery Plan No. 4. Edmonton AB. 48p. Retrieved from:

8- The Nature of Things, CBC. (2013) Little Smoky Caribou Range. Retrieved from:

9- Alberta Land-Use. (December 2008) “Land-use Framework” Edmonton AB. 54p. Retrieved from:

10- Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (2013) Regional Plans. Retrieved from:


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