In the short surrealist documentary Land Without Bread (1933), Luis Bunuel makes a point that has always stuck with me: good intentions can lead to terrible outcomes.
In the film, the church tries to help the people of Las Hurdas, who live in grueling poverty. But the would-be recipients of this charity don’t want it, misuse through ignorance largesse or advice given to them and make their overall situation manifestly worse. (The title refers to the church’s effort to improve nutrition in the area by giving out loaves of bread, but the people don’t understand what bread is and throw it out.)
None of this is literally true – Bunuel made it all up – yet it feels true, a description of the misery that can result from what anyone would consider the best intentions. (And the actual people of Las Hurdas spent years living down the dreadful image of them shown in the film.)
In attempting to maintain an economic recovery and help the caribou herd that is fast disappearing as a result, Canada may have concocted its own version of Las Hurdas. Or has it?
There is no question that Canada’s caribou population is dropping steeply and quickly in the western part of the country.
Last month, Environment Canada released its long-awaited draft recovery plan for perilous herds of woodland caribou.
It said that many of the caribou herds in Canada were in satisfactory shape, but in northern Alberta and parts of British Columbia, the situation is dire. Almost all the Alberta herds are classified as "very unlikely" to survive.
Though the herd’s territory overlaps the oil sands region, the increasing development of that area is not considered to be determinative in the caribou’s fate. The work on the oil sands does, however, contribute to the increasing industrialization of the area, and that most definitely is the cause for the caribou’s plight.
So it’s not a question of saying that working the oil sands should necessarily cease in order to save the caribou nor should any other specific activity stop. Canada wants the oil it can extract from the sands, it wants to foster employment in that area and it wants the caribou herd to stabilize.
Enter the wolves, which kill young caribou:
Environment Canada's research shows that 100 wolves would need to die for every four caribou calves saved. While Kent would not go through the math to say how many wolves he thinks are at risk in total, he did not disagree with experts' estimates.
"It would be an astronomical effort. It would be thousands of wolves in the end. It's not a very appealing option," said Stan Boutin, a caribou biologist at the University of Alberta.
I’ll say it’s not an appealing option: killing thousands of wolves must have an impact on the ecosystem. Another option being considered is creating a very large fenced area to keep in the caribou and keep out the wolves, but this idea has consequences, too:
"It's a direct trade-off, and society and everybody is going to have to make some real hard decisions there, because you cannot, over extensive areas, have both of those activities going on and preserve caribou unless you go to other drastic conservation efforts like predator control or fencing," he [Boutin] said.
"The fencing issue comes down to: will society buy into what many consider creating a bit of a zoo?"
I’m not sure, in context, what Boutin means by “both of those activities,” but he gets at the problem here, which is that even the largest penned area will artificially contain the herd and limit its territory. That’s not a good way to foster a population expansion.
This story really has nothing to do with the oil sands, except that the pursuit of energy sources involves an industrial process and an influx of people to drive it. This story could just as easily be about a nuclear energy facility. The specific situation demonstrates that good intentions can sometimes lead to unintended outcomes.
But it need not be so. Electricity plants, including nuclear energy facilities, have dealt responsibly with the fact that pulling water from a river can lead to fish mortality.
Southern California Edison this week [this was published in November 2011] dedicated a newly completed wetlands area that provides a habitat for diverse fish and waterfowl populations near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
While San Onofre’s ocean water cooling system has only a small impact on area marine life, it does affect some small fish and fish larvae. The wetlands restoration, along with several other environmental protection projects spearheaded by SCE, mitigates these effects.
This comes from NEI’s member newsletter, so no link. If you’d like to learn more about this, here’s another story about fish around nuclear energy plants. It should also be noted that fish are excellent self-sustainers and will make spawn more fish if circumstances warrant.
The response to fish mortality issues represents an instance where long experience bore workable solutions. In the same way, Canada is trying to find a responsible solution to the caribou problem. But the proposed solutions in this instance are exceptionally terrible. Everyone in the story about this from Global Calgary seems to think of the situation as sickening, especially when considering the fate of the wolves.
So - there really is no plausible solution yet. Canada isn’t going to put the breaks on industrialization or send Alberta’s economy into a tailspin.
And, to take the pessimistic p.o.v, slaughtering the wolves may not save the caribou. Fencing in the caribou may not save them because their changing habitat may trump all attempts to protect them. All the best efforts may come to naught.
In which case, as the wise man said, Chaos reigns, and Alberta could find itself denuded of caribou and wolves, surely the worse possible outcome. But then again, as with the fish, a good solution might yet be found. The trade between good intention and problematic outcomes need not lead to despair, though it’s hard not to sympathize with the people working on this problem.
There are a lot of stories out there, some linked above, blaming all this on “rapacious” oil sands magnates. Certainly, the development of the oil sands cannot be denied as a cause, but climate change has also played a large role, particularly in the Northern Territories.
I wonder about this particular tack, though, because industry is always in the crosshairs of environmentalists, however tenuous the link. Killing off caribou would be, probably is now, terrible public relations. Rapacious magnates would prefer to divert not attract attention. So – maybe. Too naïve can be as bad as too cynical.