Tears for Rudolph

December 22nd, 2005
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The fate of western Canada’s woodland caribou is again in the news. Besides the vast herds that roam the Arctic, smaller populations are scattered farther south. These are thought to be isolated groups hanging on since the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago.

Like other endangered or threatened species – the Vancouver Island marmot and snails of the Banff hot springs come to mind – these ungulates have become a cause celebre of environmentalists. Large areas of their assumed habitat in northern Alberta and B.C. have been declared off-limits for industrial activity, which is to say, oil and natural gas exploration and timber harvesting.

The usual “internal contradictions” in the Greens’ attitudes apply to these caribou. When Dr. J. was working in natural gas exploration in northwest Alberta, it was an open secret that more animals were hit on the Yellowhead Highway than were being affected by industry activity in the back country. Environmentalists commonly treated the area as if “development” meant building strip malls and suburbs from Hinton to Grande Cache.

In reality, this is an area that will never be settled, and hydrocarbon activity will last perhaps another 50 years. Logging can be managed as elsewhere.

As for the Far North, the caribou have proved about as hyper-sensitive as cows. In the searing Arctic summer they love to lie down in the shade of the industry’s small field buildings. The debate over drilling in the ANWR is equally irrational – the area to be drilled is a tiny fraction of a development zone, which in turn is a small fraction of the entire refuge. And as for “preserving native cultural values,” it’s mostly about keeping the caribou safe to shoot (as opposed to hunting with actual pre-European weapons and without benefit of motorized quads and snowmobiles).

The main question is, is preserving tenuous populations today any different from preventing forest fires 50 years ago – which we now know to be “wrong”? Every indication is that today’s decisions are as short-sighted as yesterdays.

How far would the environmentalists go? Would they “re-wild” the reindeer (caribou) of Lappland? We think we know the answer.

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