Scientists Reinforce the Need for Boreal Caribou Protection

A dozen prominent caribou scientists have rebutted claims by the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC)—an industry trade group that is working to downplay how rampant logging is destroying caribou habitat in Canada’s boreal forest. For more than five years, Canada’s federal government has called on provinces to submit habitat protection plans for the threatened boreal caribou, a species whose habitat is rapidly disappearing to logging and other forms of industrial development. Rather than taking responsibility for industry impacts and supporting sustainable logging solutions, FPAC says more studies are needed to prove that habitat-destroying logging imperils boreal caribou. Concerned with some of FPAC’s most recent public statements, scientists took the unusual step of writing to Canada’s federal government to rebut some of FPAC’s most spurious claims. The letter emphasized how existing science shows a clear connection between caribou habitat loss and caribou population declines, and that protections for caribou habitat are urgently needed. The Globe and Mail published the scientists’ letter the same week as Canada’s federal progress report, which revealed that boreal caribou populations across the country are declining, and that provinces failed to meet a five-year deadline to complete plans to protect their habitat.

The Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) president Derek Nighbor recently said, "We can't have decisions being made on the ground that aren't based on comprehensive science,” so it’s ironic that twelve wildlife experts have detailed how far FPAC’s claims stray from science. The scientists’ letter is packed with important details about threats to the caribou and the urgency of action, and includes the following key points:

1. Scientists say caribou science is quite clear and demands action.

The letter says range plans to protect boreal caribou critical habitat are “long overdue.” Almost two decades have passed since Canada’s boreal caribou was assessed as threatened. Five years ago, the federal government reported that 37 of 51 boreal caribou herds were declining. The federal government’s recent status report on caribou habitat (published after the scientists’ letter) revealed that caribou populations have continued to decline over the last five years as industrial disturbances to their habitat have increased.

FPAC argues that the push for provincial caribou protection plans is happening too quickly. Yet studies indicate that the boreal caribou could disappear from Canada within the lifetime of children living today. Industry is dragging its feet, when science shows that immediate action is critical if boreal caribou are to have a chance at long-term survival.

2. Habitat disturbance leads to caribou declines.

Scientists have observed a very “clear and consistent” correlation between habitat loss and caribou population declines in the boreal forest. The letter states, “The accumulated evidence from several decades of caribou research has revealed that increases in habitat disturbance result in a greater likelihood of population decline and location extinction (extirpation) of caribou.” 

Yet FPAC has sought to evade responsibility for caribou population declines, ignoring decades of evidence that points to human-caused habitat loss—with logging as the key driver—as the biggest threat to boreal caribou. Canada’s policymakers should not be distracted by FPAC’s red herrings, and caribou protection plans should ensure that the species have enough undisturbed forest habitat to thrive in the long-term.

3. The definition of Critical Habitat in the Caribou Recovery Strategy has a strong scientific basis.

At the heart of the Canadian government’s call for provinces to submit range protection plans, is the requirement that a minimum of 65% of each boreal caribou range is undisturbed with the goal of protecting caribou “critical habitat.” The scientists’ letter notes that the policy threshold is based on the observed fact that increased habitat disturbance leads to caribou population declines. They add, “There are no research results that refute the scientific foundation of the recovery strategy or point to an alternative pathway from managing disturbance levels within ranges as the best insurance against population decline and extirpation. On the contrary—there is high agreement among studies on the effects of disturbance on caribou.”

FPAC is attempting to delay and perhaps even scuttle proposed policies that would limit how much industry can degrade and destroy caribou habitat. But protection plans that limit the amount of disturbance in caribou ranges will be critical for the species’ long-term survival.

4. Climate change is not an excuse for inaction.

Climate change is a growing threat for boreal caribou—and indeed species around the planet. However, FPAC has attempted to label climate change as perhaps the key driver of caribou declines, in an apparent attempt to deflect attention from the direct impacts that industrial development has on boreal caribou. The scientists stressed that while climate change presents an increasingly important threat to caribou, “this should not detract focus from past and current rapid and widespread industrial development across the ranges of many populations of boreal caribou.”

Scientific evidence indicates that industrial development has been the key cause of widespread caribou habitat loss, and range protection plans would reduce that forest degradation. Moreover, caribou’s vulnerability to climate change is likely enhanced by habitat loss. Climate change is an additional reason to protect intact forests in the boreal—not accelerate their destruction.The scientists’ letter emphasizes the decades of analyses showing that caribou habitat in Canada’s boreal forest is rapidly declining as a result of widespread industrial development. Further delay to protect caribou habitat would be reckless and potentially disastrous for the boreal caribou. It’s past time for provinces to implement caribou range plans that limit habitat destruction. It is also the responsibility of Canada’s federal government to identity ranges that are threatened and unprotected, and step in to protect them. Canada’s governments should implement mandatory, enforceable protections for the boreal caribou to ensure that industrial development occurs sustainably and does not come at the expense of Canadian species. FPAC says they want science to guide boreal caribou protection planning, and scientists have replied. Now it’s time for government action.