Demise of Val d'Or Caribou Points to Peril for Other Herds

Credit: Source: Anthropogenic disturbance footprint within boreal caribou ranges across Canada as interpreted from 2008-2010 Landsat satellite imagery Updated to 2012 range boundaries. Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Guest blog by Jennifer Skene 

For decades, Quebec has greenlighted development in Val-d’Or boreal caribou habitat, knowing full well the toll it was taking. Now, with the herd’s population diminished to around 18 individuals, Quebec has offered the Val-d’Or caribou herd a brief eulogy on Facebook, stating that it will not take meaningful action to recover the herd since there is nothing it can do. It’s a devastating, needless loss, and responsibility for the precipitous decline of the herd lies squarely on the province’s shoulders. The Val-d’Or caribou’s bleak future is an illustration of what will happen across Canada if governments continue to bury their heads in the sand and approve unsustainable logging operations while populations dwindle. Provinces and territories need to stop prioritizing rampant development and, in alignment with the wishes of the international marketplace, implement mandatory and enforceable protections to ensure what happened to the Val-d’Or caribou never happens again.  

30 Years of Prioritizing Development

In a Facebook video released this week, Quebec Wildlife Minister Luc Blanchette announced the province will not be taking action to recover the severely threatened Val-d’Or caribou herd. The video cites a Ministry of Forestry, Wildlife and Parks (MFFP) report finding that the costs of the herd’s recovery would be high, and the probability of success low. Not only is Minister Blanchette’s announcement irresponsible, it fails to address Quebec’s leading role in allowing the situation to become this dire in the first place.

The report claims the MFFP has tried for 30 years to protect the Val-d’Or herd. As NRDC has shown, that’s blatantly untrue. Quebec admits it has allowed the degradation of over 75% of the Val-d’Or herd’s range. That’s more than double the 35% disturbance threshold recommended in the federal government’s 2012 Boreal Caribou Recovery Strategy to give any caribou herd a 60% chance of long-term survival.

Quebec has consistently promoted the development that led to this severe degradation, despite more than 30 years of strong scientific evidence and warnings from First Nations that meaningful habitat protection was necessary. While management plans for the Val-d’Or region have been in place since 1989, these piecemeal, Band-Aid solutions have fallen well short of what was necessary to save the herd from the province’s voracious approval of logging and mining operations. When Quebec finally did create a caribou reserve in 2009, it was only one-third the size of what scientists had recommended, and had already been degraded by recreational development.

Even when the herd’s numbers reached an alarming low, Quebec kept pushing development. As recently as 2017, just one month after it announced—and then retracted—a plan to remove the last of the Val-d’Or caribou  to a zoo as a last resort, the Quebec government approved a logging road in the herd’s critical habitat, over the objections of its own scientists.  

It’s Not Just Happening in Val-d’Or

Quebec’s failure to protect the Val-d’Or herd mirrors provincial and territorial inaction across Canada’s boreal. Boreal caribou have been listed as threatened since the federal Species At Risk Act came into effect in 2003. Their decline has largely been the result of habitat degradation. Of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou ranges, only 14 are considered on track to support caribou in the long-term. Without meaningful habitat protection, boreal caribou could disappear from Canada within the lifetime of children living today.

In 2012, the Canadian government gave provinces and territories five years to develop conservation plans based on science and Indigenous knowledge for each of Canada’s boreal caribou populations. Not a single province or territory met this deadline, and legal regimes across Canada still do not provide mandatory, enforceable protections for boreal caribou.

In fact, since the federal government’s 2012 call to action, some provinces have even backpedaled on previous progress. In July 2013, for example, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) gutted its previously renowned Endangered Species Act (ESA) by adding extensive exemptions for logging and other industries. Quebec, meanwhile, is moving its northern logging limit next month, opening up more land to logging and potentially leaving even more caribou herds vulnerable to habitat degradation. 

The International Marketplace Calls for Caribou Protections

Quebec’s announcement severely undermines the province’s international reputation as a sustainable source of forest products. The U.S. marketplace, as the destination for over 80% of Quebec’s exports, is looking to ensure that its purchases do not come at the expense of boreal caribou. Last October, major companies including Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, H&M, and Ben & Jerry’s wrote the Canadian and provincial governments asking them to protect boreal caribou.

To restore purchasers’ confidence that forest products from Quebec are sustainably sourced, the province should accept responsibility for the Val-d’Or herd’s decline and work with Indigenous Peoples to implement mandatory, enforceable protections for critical boreal caribou habitat across the province. Canada’s other provinces and territories should take similar action to avoid their own versions of the Val-d’Or herd’s fate.

In its announcement, Quebec attempted to justify its decision by stating that resources would be better spent recovering other, less decimated caribou populations. While this is no justification for abandoning the Val-d’Or herd, Quebec needs to keep that promise, use its resources as it says it will, and make sure this never happens again. In November 2017, Quebec signaled leadership by protecting caribou habitat in the Montagnes-Blanches region of the province. This protected area is far from perfect, as it still allows for mineral exploration and does not include certain critical habitat areas. However, it is a positive step toward the mandatory, enforceable protections needed across Canada to prevent the loss of other caribou populations. Now, much more is needed.

What has happened to the Val-d’Or herd is tragic, particularly because it was preventable. Rather than rewriting history, Quebec—and the rest of Canada—should learn from it. While the future of the Val-d’Or herd may be bleak, there is still time to save other caribou populations and prevent history from repeating itself. It’s time to get to work, Canada. Val-d’Or is your wakeup call.