Plight of Val d'Or Caribou Is Wakeup Call for Quebec
Co-authored by Jennifer Skene and Courtenay Lewis
The desperate plight of the Val d'Or woodland caribou, one of Quebec’s seven remaining woodland caribou herds, paints an alarming picture of the impact that unsustainable logging and industrial activities has had on the boreal forest and the species that rely on it. NRDC has released an issue brief and new maps which detail the impact that Quebec’s permissive policy toward logging and other industrial development in the boreal is having on the province's woodland caribou. Decades of inaction has left the Val d'Or herd’s habitat so degraded that Quebec’s government recently proposed rounding up the remaining 15 caribou in the herd and sending them to a zoo as a conservation solution. In response to deteriorating conditions for Quebec's woodland caribou habitat, over 34,000 NRDC members have called on Quebec's Premier Couillard urging him to prevent logging in Quebec’s boreal woodland caribou ranges, including the Broadback River Valley and the Montagnes Blanches (White Mountains) region, until scientifically sound caribou recovery plans are in place across the province. This is a critical wakeup call for Quebec to protect the province’s remaining critical woodland caribou habitat while there is still time.
In the 1980s, non-governmental organizations in Quebec, First Nations communities, and even the government’s own scientists expressed grave concerns for the impacts that logging would have on the Val-d’Or herd, which in the 80s had around 50 individuals. Over the last three decades, these groups have continued to call for the Val-d’Or’s remaining habitat to be protected. Yet as a satellite time-lapse demonstrates, between 1984 and 2016, Quebec allowed the rapid deterioration of the herd’s habitat. Quebec approved logging and mining projects, and refused to close access roads that were opening the region to ATVs and other recreation. During this time, the herd’s population diminished from 40 individuals in 1994, to 30 in 2008, to 20 in 2014, to no more than 15 today. Canada maintains that `herds can withstand no more than 35 percent disturbance of their habit in order to have sustainable populations, yet today around 80% of the Val-d’Or herd’s habitat is disturbed.
Loss of caribou habitat between 1984 and 2016. Source: Landsat imagery from Google Earth®
In April, the Quebec government proposed transporting the remaining members of the Val-d’Or herd to a zoo, paradoxically to teach visitors about the importance of this species. Capturing the herd would have required chasing them through the forest with helicopters and attempting to capture them on frozen lakes, which risked harming and even killing some members of the herd. Moreover, caribou do not fare well in captivity: in 2015, 19 of this same zoo’s 21 woodland caribou died.
Quebec’s announcement to move the Val-d’Or herd was widely criticized and derided by the public and press. A petition with the slogan #pasauzoo (translated as “not to the zoo”) coordinated by Nature Quebec, SNAP Quebec, and Action Boréale garnered over 15,000 signatures, while citizens staged protests at the headquarters of Eacom, which logs in the herd’s habitat. First Nations including the Algonquin communities of Pikogan and Lac Simon spoke out against the relocation of the herd and the fact that they were never consulted.
This backlash ultimately influenced the zoo’s June decision to rescind its offer to take the herd. In early June the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement, an independent agency responsible for advising the government, also urged the government to study the viability of the herd’s survival before moving the caribou to captivity. Quebec has since acknowledged that it will respect the zoo’s decision.
Even though it has stepped back on its zoo plans, the Quebec government has failed to recognize the extent that its policy of actively approving industrial development in the boreal without a scientifically credible plan to ensure it could be conducted sustainably greatly undermined the Val-d’Or herd’s chances of persisting in its natural habitat. For decades, Quebec ignored multiple warnings and allowed developments that degraded the herd’s habitat. Even this year, Quebec approved the Eacom Timber Corporation’s application to construct an access road through critical caribou habitat against the advice of the government’s own scientists.
Quebec’s history with the Val-d’Or herd does not inspire confidence in its vague commitments to protect the province’s remaining woodland caribou in its Habitat Stewardship Plan. In October, Canada’s federal government will call on Quebec and other provinces to submit detailed, effective caribou conservation plans. In order to demonstrate that it is committed to protecting the province’s remaining caribou, Quebec will need to provide robust plans with immediate action items to ensure that in a few years we will not be reading about the next Val-d’Or herd. A first step is to take immediate action to conserve Québec’s remaining woodland caribou ranges, including the Broadback River Valley and the Montagnes Blanches (White Mountains) region, until scientifically sound caribou recovery plans are in place across the province.
As we contemplate the fact that the tragic fate of the Val-d’Or herd could have been avoided, immediate robust action from Quebec to protect the boreal forest and the woodland caribou that rely on it is more important than ever.