, Justina Ray
© Justina Ray

Caribou a key test of federal resolve to protect species at risk


Justina Ray
President & Senior Scientist





Following right on the heels of Halloween, the federal government has released a very scary report on how caribou are faring across Canada.

By: Justina Ray

Following right on the heels of Halloween, the federal government has released a very scary report on how caribou are faring across Canada.

Five years ago, the federal government finalized a recovery strategy for boreal forest caribou -- work that was triggered by the listing of caribou as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).

This recovery strategy broke new ground. Rather than just designating specific areas as “critical habitat,” the strategy took a different approach by setting limits on habitat disturbance throughout the 51 ranges of boreal caribou across Canada. This policy decision was based on clear scientific evidence of the link between habitat disturbance within caribou ranges (by forestry, roads, oil and gas development, pipelines, etc.) and caribou decline.

Release of the federal recovery strategy required the provinces and territories (which are constitutionally responsible for managing natural resources, including wildlife) to design caribou range management plans that respected this threshold. Thus, the total amount of existing and new disturbance would have to stay below the threshold, and for the all-too-many ranges that had already exceeded these limits, habitat restoration would be required. And that meant that provinces had to adopt a more holistic view of habitat and development decisions, rather than the largely ineffectual project-by-project planning processes that characterize business-as-usual resource development.

Provincial responses to this challenge have been, to say the least, underwhelming. Not a single province or territory met the federal deadline for developing full range management plans. In fact, the federal government now reports that habitat disturbance in most ranges continues to increase, especially in Alberta and Québec. And many caribou populations have continued to trend downward over the last five years, matched by an upward trend in the use of intensive management techniques such as predator control or penning of calves and mothers in place of proactive steps to protect habitat.

The good news is that the federal government itself largely met the deadline for reporting on the recovery planning progress. That may not seem particularly praiseworthy, but federal actions under SARA have often been marked by serious foot dragging, regularly missing deadlines for everything from species listing decisions to developing recovery plans.

Importantly, the federal government made it clear that it will take the next six months to examine whether provinces and territories are serious about meeting their range planning obligations. The feds have given themselves a pathway under SARA to potentially step in and act if provinces don’t or won’t. This is a major step given the rather conflicted views of many provincial governments.

The fact is, however, the science is more than clearenough to justify taking immediate action. Earlier this fall, leading caribou scientists sent a letter to the federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change carefully refuting a number of claims made by the Forest Products Association of Canada.

Given the increasingly tenuous status of caribou in many parts of Canada, the bottom line is that calling for more research, as FPAC is doing, is like calling for more studies after the Atlantic cod collapse.

This week’s federal report provides some useful information on the status of boreal caribou across Canada, but it is also over-reliant on evidence supplied by the provinces that, in many cases, paints a rosier picture of their progress than reality on the ground would suggest. In Ontario, for example, the government has given the forestry industry a sweeping exemption from requirements to protect endangered species, the highly negative consequences of which are buried in the federal report’s appendix. British Columbia, meanwhile, is claiming to have developed a “new science” approach to caribou protection that appears to involve little in the way of scientific rigour or actual scientifically verified success. But even with the inclusion of this over-optimistic information, the overall picture the report paints remains extremely worrisome.

More than 20 years have passed since the provinces, territories and federal government signed the 1996 Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, in which all jurisdictions committed to establish complementary legislation and programs to protect species throughout Canada. This followed the development of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty that Canada was the first country to sign, and, finally 10 years later, the passage of SARA.

Which brings us to today. Five years of delay have left us with a set of still unfinished plans for saving a key forest species. This is wheel spinning at its worst, particularly given that Canada actually has not just a national, but a global responsibility to protect boreal caribou.

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