Oct. 5 came and went, and Canada’s boreal woodland caribou are still in trouble. That was the deadline the federal government gave provinces and territories five years ago to come up with caribou range plans for the iconic animals. Not one met the deadline.
Why should we care about caribou?
When caribou are healthy, it’s a sign the forests they live in are healthy. Forests provide numerous ecological services, such as preventing floods, storing carbon and regulating climate, as well as habitat for animals and plants and livelihoods and resources for people.
In 2012, the federal government’s recovery strategy for boreal caribou concluded that only 14 of 51 herds were healthy enough to sustain themselves.
The recovery strategy identifies a minimum of 65 per cent undisturbed habitat in a range as the “disturbance management threshold.”
In the face of ineffective stopgap measures — like killing predators such as wolves and bears, and penning female caribou to keep predators away — many scientists, environmentalists and First Nations have been calling on governments to address the real problem: cumulative disturbance. Roads and seismic lines for forestry, mining and oil and gas operations, along with industrial activity, have fragmented and degraded caribou habitat, altering predator-prey dynamics.
Caribou don’t have time to wait, and the science is clear. Many herds were identified as threatened more than 17 years ago, and provinces and territories have had five years to come up with plans. Although the causes of caribou decline are varied and complex, decades of research have shown habitat degradation is a major factor and habitat protection and restoration must be the foundation for recovery plans.
As for rigidity, provinces and territories have been given space to vary their plans based on science, but even protecting or restoring 65 per cent intact habitat only gives caribou a 60 per cent chance of survival. Climate change is, of course, a factor in the decline of many plants and animals, but that doesn’t explain the rapid decline of caribou, nor should it be used as an excuse..
Industrial resource-extraction operators often claim their practices are sustainable. Yet these practices have contributed to caribou decline and, under the current management regime, there is no evidence herds are recovering. Either the research shows continued declines or, in some cases such as Ontario, populations haven’t been monitored for four to six years.
Yes, we need to continue studying caribou and ways to keep their populations stable, and industry has an important role to play. Stalling, raising doubt about the research and exempting industry from regulations, as Ontario has done, will increase risks for boreal caribou.
Governments and industry must work with the indigenous peoples to stop industrial expansion in boreal caribou ranges that have exceeded 35 per cent disturbance and take immediate steps to restore and protect critical habitat. Time is running out. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.