Party to extinction
It’s rare in a democratic society that a single political party can celebrate the accomplishments of 40 years of uninterrupted rule, but that is certainly the case for Alberta’s so-called Progressive Conservatives. Since Peter Lougheed brought the Tories to power in 1971, the Conservatives have held an overwhelming majority and, it cannot be denied, turned Alberta into Canada’s economic darling.
But behind the Tories’ success lurks an ugly shadow, the unavoidable legacy of the increasingly neo-liberal policies of a party that is almost unrecognizable from the one Lougheed led. Perhaps the darkest part of the Tories’ dark side is the looming extinctions for which the party must also take responsibility.
According to Alberta government records, three of Alberta’s birds and two of its mammals have already been sent into oblivion. Like everywhere else in Canada, Alberta no longer harbours the Eskimo curlew, the passenger pigeon and the greater-prairie chicken. The plains bison and the black-footed ferret are also gone, though you can still find them in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. All were sent packing from Alberta because of overhunting and/or habitat destruction, most of which took place long before anyone could have imagined joining the words “progressive” and “conservative” into a name for a political party.
The Tories, however, will be on the hook for the next round of local extinctions (or extirpations, as biologists call them). I have never seen the beauty and grace of the greater sage grouse’s courtship display, and unless there is some miraculous about-face in government policy in the next year or two, I never will — at least not in Alberta. About the time Lougheed ascended the throne of the Alberta Tories, there were more than 600 male sage grouse dancing on 21 leks (or breeding areas) in Alberta. Despite the fact the species has been listed as endangered for 13 years, there are just 13 males still strutting their stuff on the Alberta prairie.
“This will be the first case where the oil and gas industry has caused the extirpation of a species from Alberta,” said University of Alberta biologist Mark Boyce, who predicts sage grouse will be gone as early as 2013. “We’ve known this is a serious problem for five years. But the province has failed or refused to do anything about it.”
It may be the first case, but it probably won’t be the last. Alberta’s woodland caribou, visible on the back of the Canadian quarter, may be next on the chopping block. When the Tories first came to power in 1971, there were approximately 5,000 woodland caribou in Alberta. Shortly after Don Getty replaced Lougheed as premier in 1985, they were listed as an endangered species. Suffice to say that Ralph Klein, who replaced Getty in 1992, was not kind to caribou; since then, little to nothing has been done to prevent their continued decline.
Today, there are fewer than 3,000 woodland caribou living in 16 distinct populations in Alberta. Of the 13 we’ve bothered to monitor, 10 are losing numbers. The Banff herd has already disappeared, and the Little Smoky and A La Peche herds are on life support, which in this case means poisoning and shooting wolves to keep the caribou alive while their forest homes are further logged, roaded and drilled.
There was hope that the Alberta government’s Lower Athabasca Regional Plan and the federal government’s woodland caribou recovery strategy would stop the bleeding, but neither of these efforts provide adequate protection for caribou. If these plans are not improved, Alberta’s caribou may well be doomed. According to the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel, which released a report this year called Keeping Woodland Caribou in the Boreal Forest: Big Challenge, Immense Opportunity, “the consequences of today’s actions, or inaction, will reverberate for at least a half-century.” If Albertans keep giving the Tories a majority mandate, caribou eventually will follow the plains bison into the history books.
Grizzly bears, too, are on the ropes thanks to the Tories’ “drill, baby, drill” economic philosophy. Rough estimates suggest there may have been as many as 6,000 of the great bears when European trappers arrived in what is now Alberta, but there are only about 700 now, eking out an existence in the mountains and foothills on the western edge of oblivion. Although the population may have rebounded somewhat from the predator poisoning campaigns in the 1950s, the latest research indicates they’re likely on the decline again, and the Tory government couldn’t be bothered to implement the recovery plan approved in 2008.
“As we all know, it is the rapidly deteriorating landscape conditions influenced by industrial development that is spelling doom for Alberta’s grizzly bears,” the prolific Dr. Boyce told me in an email. “And the province has already decided to let them go. Terminate the hunt, list the species as threatened, provide no funding for research or monitoring, and let them quietly disappear from most of Alberta while we continue to provide oil and gas for our fuel-hungry diets.”
Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives may be good at turning nature into money, but just remember there’s a dark side to all that wealth — it’s called annihilation.
Published October 6, 2011 in Fast Forward.