New Maps Show “Protected” Caribou Habitat Under Siege

Satellite imagery shows significant clearcuts in regions logging industry had agreed to protect.
Woodland Caribou
Credit: Menno Schaefer/Shutterstock

Even as the logging industry lobbies the Canadian government to further delay measures that would protect the country’s diminishing woodland caribou herds, new satellite imagery of the boreal clearly illustrate the failure of voluntary industry commitments to secure the protection of woodland caribou habitat. A series of maps show significant clearcutting in regions that both the forestry industry and environmental organizations determined were critical woodland caribou habitat and placed under a voluntary logging moratorium. This satellite imagery paints a stark picture of the impact that logging has had on some of Canada's most important woodland caribou habitat and highlights the urgent need for provinces and the federal government to take concrete action to protect what remains. 

When forestry companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) signed the 2010 Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) to protect habitat of Canada’s threatened boreal woodland caribou, the pact was lauded as a groundbreaking conservation initiative that would preserve 170 million acres of Canada’s boreal forest. Under the agreement, forestry companies agreed to place an area the size of Montana under a logging moratorium between 2010-2013, an action that forestry companies said would reassure global buyers that logging in the region was sustainable. In return, the NGOs who co-signed the pact agreed to suspend boycotts against the participating companies. NGOs highlighted that the agreement would give governments the opportunity to accelerate caribou habitat protection plans, and expressed the hope that large portions of the moratorium area would come under permanent protection after 2013. However, new geographic information system (GIS) mapping reveals significant logging in CBFA protected areas. Both during and after the moratorium period, logging continued in large portions of the Quebec forests that had ostensibly been "protected," threatening the intact forest areas that woodland caribou require to survive.

With Canada estimating that 30% of its boreal woodland caribou could disappear within the next 15 years, evidence that CBFA-protected areas were significantly degraded both during and after the moratorium is deeply troubling. Canada’s boreal forest—which stretches across the country’s northern latitudes—contains many of the world’s last large expanses of undisturbed wilderness. The boreal woodland caribou, one of Canada’s most beloved and iconic species, requires habitat free of industrial disturbances, making the protection of intact forest regions crucial to the species’ survival. NRDC’s new evidence that some companies continued to log during the CBFA logging moratorium demonstrates the need for Canadian provinces to put forward strong, enforceable conservation plans that protect caribou habitat. As these maps show, in the absence of such province-wide policies, individual companies can still log destructively without any repercussions. 

Satellite Images Reveal Steady Logging in Intact Forests

The two areas studied by NRDC cover about 6,000 square miles, an area equivalent to the size of New York City and Tokyo combined. These two sections were part of the broader area placed off-limits to logging between 2010-2013 under the CBFA. While the areas NRDC examined are only a snapshot, they suggest a trend of forest degradation in the moratorium area that the logging industry had agreed to protect.The red regions highlight the estimated footprint of human activity over the 2010-2013 moratorium period, while the orange regions show areas of forest degradation since 2013. 

Map 1 shows the area covered by portions of UAF 02451 and 02751 north of Lac St. Jean, which were part of the CBFA’s logging moratorium.

The time-lapse videos below capture the steady erosion of landscapes in these same areas over the last two decades and highlight the vulnerability of approximately the same area. As the video shows time progress, large swaths of once intact forest slowly disappear into large cut-blocks.

Video 1: Yearly satellite imagery approximately corresponding to the area north of Lac St. Jean presented in Map 1. Map Data: Google, DigitalGlobe.  

Mapping of the Waswanipi Cree territory south of the Broadback River Valley Watershed shows a similar story, showing significant logging throughout the region over the last three decades with some disturbances occurring during the time period when much of this area was under a logging moratorium. The significant impact of the logging industry on the region south of the Broadback River Valley watershed has been well documented and only lends urgency to the First Nation's call for protection of their last remaining intact boreal territory. 

Map 2: Another area of the moratorium showing portions of areas covered by UAF 08666 and 08764 south of the Broadback River watershed.

The video below shows approximately the same region over this time period. 


Video 2: Yearly satellite imagery corresponding to the area south of the Broadback River watershed presented in Map 2. Map Data: Google, DigitalGlobe.  

The logged areas on these maps include habitat of the boreal woodland caribou which has fewer than 8,000 individuals remaining in Quebec and is designated as “threatened” across Canada. As we recently detailed, the population of one of Quebec’s caribou herds became so diminished that the Quebec government proposed putting the herd in a zoo. Across Canada, boreal woodland caribou habitats are disappearing so rapidly to logging and other disturbances that Canada’s own reports indicate that 30% of the remaining species could disappear in less than two decades. The fate of the woodland caribou is closely tied to that of the boreal forest, as habitat loss is the primary cause of the species’ decline. In addition, woodland caribou are an “indicator species”—if their survival is threatened, the broader forest ecosystem is likely threatened. The woodland caribou’s plight, therefore, is particularly troubling and has far-reaching implications.

Fortunately, there is still a window of opportunity for Canada to protect the boreal woodland caribou in a way that holds logging companies accountable. After all, the co-signers of the CBFA originally conceived of the moratorium as an opportunity for Canada’s governments to create complementary forestry management plans. Under the national Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Canadian provinces are meant to submit scientifically rigorous caribou recovery plans by October 2017. To date, no province, including Quebec and Ontario, has detailed plans on how they plan to protect the province's remaining caribou habitat. It is critical that provinces and the federal government move forward with scientifically credible  plans on schedule. If they are not prepared to release plans by the federal deadline, they should be prepared to implement strong interim protections on remaining critical caribou habitat until these plans can be developed. 

These maps show that while voluntary agreements can play an important role in preserving the habitat of threatened species like the woodland caribou, they are not sufficient. In the absence of robust policies containing enforcement mechanisms, individual companies can still harvest wood in destructive ways. To protect the Canadian communities, species, and local economies that depend on a healthy boreal region, provincial and federal governments need to implement strong conservation policies, in close collaboration with First Nations, that ensure the protection of vulnerable habitat. With more critical caribou habitat lost to logging each day, the failure to quickly implement strong boreal protections could mean the disappearance of one of Canada’s most iconic species.