The longtime northern Alberta trapper had been chased from one area to another as he tried to stay ahead of the logging and drilling that ruined his other traplines. The section along the Little Smoky River east of Grande Cache seemed perfect — not pristine, but relatively untouched.
Timber companies had agreed to stay out. The federal and provincial governments had promised to preserve caribou habitat. And Cowles's new trapline was on the one sliver of the Little Smoky herd's range that remains in good shape.
Cowles, 63, figured he'd spend the rest of his trapping days working the surrounding lakes, creeks and forests.
"When I bought this trapline, I thought, 'This is good. I'll be protected here,'" he said recently. "I got in here and exactly the same thing is happening, except it's worse."
Alberta has 15 caribou herds and all of them are threatened by industrial incursion into the old-growth forest they require to survive, a problem acknowledged by both the federal and Alberta governments.
As early as 2004, Alberta's caribou recovery plan said "targets should be used to describe the minimum habitat necessary for the survival and recovery of woodland caribou." Federal documents say caribou need to be able to use at least 65 per cent of their range.
If any area were a candidate for preservation, it would be Cowles's neck of the woods.
Environment Canada says caribou tend to stay at least 500 metres from roads, cutlines or well sites. That accounts for 95 per cent of the Little Smoky range, the worst disturbance rate for any herd in Canada.
The remaining five per cent, on which Cowles traps, is critical.
"It is within the core of the range and it is relatively undisturbed," said Dave Hervieux, caribou specialist with Alberta's Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. "It is heavily used by the caribou that remain."
Environmentalists echo the sentiment that this habitat should be saved.
"It shouldn't be that hard to defer new (industrial) footprint," said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
Still, in 2009 and 2010, Alberta Energy sold 61 oil and gas leases in the two townships right in the heart of what was left of Little Smoky's prime range.
Despite policy and promises to preserve habitat, 84 per cent of that tiny remnant has now been sold off. The average price was about $380 a hectare — about two-thirds the average price for oil and gas rights in 2010.
Roads have been punched through the bush. Cowles counts plans for at least 34 new wells on his trapline.
"I had one oil company tell me, 'We see (caribou) on the lease all the time. They like it there.'
"I said, 'They don't like it there. They used to feed there. They fed in that area for hundreds of years and they fed in the same places all the time. You guys go clear (the trees) and they'll go there to feed and they'll just stand there because they don't know why the feed isn't there.'"
Cowles has been offered buyouts, but he's not biting.
"They'll pay me off, but why do I want to get bought out? So I'll shut up?"
He has written to Alberta's environment and energy ministers and to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"All you get is lip service," Cowles said. "I'm just kind of getting to my wit's end. It's just like banging your head against a wall."
He says pelts from lynx, marten, fisher and wolf are already down about 75 per cent.
"I don't blame the oil companies. The government is the one that's selling the land to them and telling them what to do with it."
Alberta Energy spokesman Mike Deising said Alberta must develop its energy resources.
"It's all about finding the right balance between getting the resources out of the ground and, in this case, with habitat," he said.
Roads "go everywhere" in this province, he said. "Roads are a factor of living in a 21st-century economy."
Deising said conflicts between development and habitat conservation are being mitigated through land-use plans such as one recent completed for the oilsands region which saw some energy leases cancelled.
That plan took years to achieve. Land-use discussions for the Little Smoky area haven't yet begun.
The Little Smoky herd consists of fewer than 100 animals and is considered in imminent danger of extirpation, which means making a species extinct in one area but not globally.
"More work needs to be done," Deising acknowledged.
He said the herd has remained stable for the last six years.However, that stability has been achieved largely through shooting wolves that prey on the caribou — about 650 since 2005.
"We have bought them some time with our wolf management plan," said Hervieux. "If we weren't reducing the excessive mortality on caribou, the game's up."
Hervieux concedes that shooting wolves won't work forever.
"If the habitat conditions for caribou very significantly decline from where they are currently, then I would say even with predator management it would be hard to keep caribou in the game.
"You can only hold back Mother Nature so long."
The logging industry has had more success in conserving habitat, Hervieux said.
"On the oil and gas side, we have fewer examples," he said. "It's complicated and I think it's fair to say that we're not there yet.
"There's a continued desire to work in that country, for natural resources to be extracted there, and there's a desire to conserve caribou. All of those things are hard to make work together.
"It's going to take some time to make these things all good."
Campbell has heard such pledges before.
"The (Alison) Redford government had promised there would be a better balance between environmental concerns and economic development," she said. "It's very disappointing there hasn't been in this case.
"Business goes ahead with business as usual. It makes a mockery of promises to 'better balance.'"
Now, after more than 40 years in the bush, Cowles wonders how long he has left.
"I don't have any new areas to go to. I'm finished.
"Trappers are the only stewards of the land left. We're there to see it every day.
"(People) don't see the destruction. It doesn't bother them.
"If they were out there every day and they saw how beautiful it was and the animals that are in there, it would be a different story for sure."
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