Logging Industry Needs to Face the Facts on Boreal Caribou

Canada's logging industry's campaign against federal caribou recovery plans ignores years of scientific research showing that habitat protection for the boreal caribou is urgently needed. Almost fifteen years after being listed under Canada's Species at Risk Act, it's time for the Canada's federal and provincial governments to act to protect this iconic species before it's too late.
Woodland Caribou
Credit: Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock

Co-authored by Jen Skene

With an October 5 deadline for provincial caribou protection plans looming, the logging industry’s trade association in Canada is once again trying to delay protections for boreal woodland caribou (boreal caribou)—a species that has been listed as threatened for almost 15 years under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) has launched a campaign that uses a misleading terminology to claim that it is unclear whether the logging industry is impacting boreal caribou—and that therefore more research is necessary before authorities take action to protect their habitat. In fact, a deep dive actually shows that scientists see the same case studies that FPAC relies on to argue for inaction—those of Alberta's mountain caribou—as a cautionary tale of what will happen to the boreal caribou if Canada's federal and provincial governments do not take action. 

The reality is that years of scientific study clear show that urgent action is needed to protect Canada’s remaining boreal caribou. Various scientific analyses have shown that logging is an overwhelming driver of boreal caribou habitat degradation across Canada. Government analyses show that only 14 of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou herds are self-sustaining. Furthermore, studies from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) indicate that, if current trends continue, 30% of boreal caribou could disappear in the next 15 years. Already, the Val-d’Or herd in Quebec has been driven to the brink of extinction, and many other herds are also expected to dramatically decline without remediation measures.

In the face of this research, FPAC cites caribou declines in Jasper National Park and their disappearance from Banff National Park in Alberta, where logging is prohibited, as evidence that the logging industry is not to blame for declining boreal caribou populations. There’s just one small problem—the caribou in those national parks aren’t even boreal caribou.

They are instead mountain caribou, a completely different ecotype. Unlike the boreal caribou, which remain in the boreal region year-round, the mountain caribou spend a substantial portion of the year in alpine or subalpine areas and rely on different vegetation. As a result, the mountain caribou’s population trends cannot be used to explain the decline of the boreal caribou. Studies of mountain caribou have had no bearing on the science underlying the federal boreal caribou recovery strategy, and they have an entirely separate federal recovery strategy.

FPAC is trying to compare apples with oranges in order to stymie meaningful protection for boreal caribou.Additionally, FPAC’s assertion that because mountain caribou are in national parks, like Banff, they are not impacted by habitat disturbance is deeply flawed. National parks are not untouched wildernesses—they see extensive recreational activity throughout the year and are fragmented by roads and other infrastructure development. Banff, for example, contains a four-lane highway, a railway, a golf course, three commercial ski hills, and a snow-tube park, and consistently has over three million visitors per year. Furthermore, even though they were found in national parks, the mountain caribou FPAC cites likely were impacted by the myriad industrial activities in the lands surrounding the parks, which can impact predator-prey dynamics within nearby protected areas.

FPAC’s argument that governments should wait for more science before acting is particularly ironic given that scientists contend one of the reasons the Banff caribou herd disappeared is that the science explaining their decline was not accepted quickly enough and wildlife managers failed to act in time. One scientific assessment of why Banff’s mountain caribou herd disappeared warned:

"Indeed, extirpation of the Banff caribou may be the canary in the coal mine for systemic problems with endangered-species recovery in Canada. Given the declines of caribou across Canada (Vors & Boyce 2009), increased recovery planning seems urgently needed. Similar failure by Environment Canada to implement recovery planning for boreal woodland caribou across the country will most likely contribute to caribou population declines as at least 25 other populations are at risk of decline across Canada."

M. Hebblewihite et. al. , Conservation Biology 2010

Yet FPAC is brazenly arguing that policymakers should repeat the same mistakes with the boreal caribou that led to the disappearance of Banff’s caribou. 

FPAC’s emphasis on the need for more science as an excuse to delay action is also paradoxical since that seems to be where FPAC’s interest in science stops. When it comes to decades of science from academics, scientists, and First Nations that already shows that industrial development—especially logging—is a primary cause of boreal caribou decline, FPAC ignores it.  

The decades of research already available show that boreal caribou need immediate protection from unsustainable logging and that waiting potentially years, as FPAC suggests, for more studies could be disastrous. Now is the time for the provincial and federal governments to implement meaningful protections for this iconic species. Additional scientific studies should occur against a backdrop of a strong protection scheme, not serve as an excuse for inaction. The boreal caribou have waited long enough.