Caribou Action Plan Must Set Stage for Federal Leadership

Canada releases its Action Plan for boreal caribou—but action on the ground is needed to ensure that this iconic species and its boreal home aren't lost.
Credit: Environment and Climate Change Canada

Guest blog by Jennifer Skene and Courtenay Lewis

Yesterday, the Canadian government released a final Action Plan for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal Population (Action Plan). The Action Plan highlights the need to protect the “iconic but threatened” boreal caribou, and calls for collaboration and more information-sharing among governments, scientists and stakeholders. Yet lacking from the Action Plan are critical details on what measures the federal government plans to take, and what it will require from provinces to ensure that caribou protection measures are effective. Time is running out, and an Action Plan will be meaningless if it doesn’t lead to real action.                                     

Since the government released its draft Action Plan in July 2017, the need for strong boreal caribou habitat protections has only grown. In October, the federal government released a boreal caribou recovery strategy Progress Report, which highlighted that boreal caribou populations have continued to plummet in the five years since the recovery strategy was released. This is due, in large part, to the fact that industrial logging continues to expand into prime caribou habitat.

In our original comments on the draft Action Plan, NRDC stressed the importance that additional studies not delay the protection of caribou habitat. The Canadian government’s own reports state that only 14 of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou herds are on track to survive in the long-term, and reveal that caribou could disappear within the lifetime of children living today. Rampant habitat loss due to logging and other industrial development is the key driver of boreal caribou population decline. Every day, forestry companies log an average of 3,858 acres of boreal forest—the equivalent of over 10,000 NHL ice hockey rinks.

Yet, the federal government’s Action Plan continues to focus too heavily on additional calls for information, and hints at accepting vague conservation commitments from provinces, rather than stating that it will require enforceable protections. Provinces are failing to implement mandatory, enforceable protections for boreal caribou habitat; in October, every province and territory missed a federally-set deadline to submit caribou range protection plans, despite having had five years to draft them. As the federal government inches toward tentative action, the logging industry continues to degrade vital caribou habitat, compromising efforts to recover the threatened species. While robust research should guide any caribou protection plan, Canada already has decades of scientific studies pointing to the need for immediate habitat protection.

What we need now is strong federal leadership to prompt provinces to act. As it stands, no province has mandatory and enforceable protections for caribou habitat. The federal government needs to highlight where provinces are failing to protect the boreal caribou, and step in with a “safety net” for unprotected areas using its authority under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). Canada should also continue pressuring provinces to immediately halt the destruction of vulnerable areas, and to implement long-term, legally-binding caribou habitat protections with the close collaboration and consent of Indigenous Nations.

The lack of effective habitat protection for Canada’s iconic boreal caribou, and widespread logging of one of the world’s last large intact forests, jeopardizes Canada’s reputation as a source for sustainable forest products. The international marketplace is looking to Canada to implement strong protections to ensure that the forest products they purchase do not come at the expense of boreal caribou. Last October, major international companies including Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, H&M, and Ben & Jerry’s wrote the Canadian and provincial governments expressing their concerns that boreal caribou habitat remains unprotected.

To signal to the international marketplace that Canada’s forest products are sustainably harvested and do not threaten the future of boreal caribou, we urge the federal government to take the following actions:

  1. Step in where necessary. Under SARA, the federal government has the authority to implement a “safety net” order to protect habitat where provinces and territories have failed to do so. This step will be critical to showing that SARA has teeth, and that provincial inaction on species protection will prompt a response from the federal government. Canada should enact this safety net order in 2018.
  2. Work with provinces and report on where they are falling short. The Action Plan states that the federal government “will continue to work with provinces and territories to ensure that robust range plans are in place,” but more details are needed to ensure that plans include mandatory, enforceable protections that prevent the degradation of critical boreal caribou habitat. Anything less than mandatory, enforceable protections is not an effective solution. In addition, the Canadian government has committed to releasing a report in April 2018 describing where boreal caribou habitat remains unprotected. While we support the release of this report, it will only be a laudable achievement if it drives concrete conservation action. The federal government should then continue to report every 180 days on where provinces and territories are falling short, as required under SARA.
  3. Work with Indigenous Peoples to facilitate Indigenous-led caribou protections. Indigenous Nations have relied upon the boreal forest for millennia, and many communities’ ways of life are tied to the forest and species like the caribou. Indigenous Peoples are in a unique position to craft and lead broadly beneficial land-use plans for the boreal forest. Many Indigenous communities are already leading the way toward effective caribou and boreal forest protection in the absence of action by provinces and territories For example, the sole boreal caribou range plan released in October 2017 that satisfies federal requirements to protect at minimum 65% of boreal caribou ranges was created by the Fort Nelson First Nation in British Columbia. The federal government should encourage and support Indigenous leadership, and collaborate with Indigenous Peoples in the development of plans to protect and recover boreal caribou populations.  

To merit an international reputation as a sustainable source of forest products, Canada needs to work with Indigenous Peoples to protect boreal caribou, and require mandatory protections from provinces. Science and data should guide conservation, but there is already ample evidence that immediate action is crucial. If Canada’s most iconic species is to have a chance at long-term survival, action plans need to actually lead to action.