Caribou Protections Backslide Threatens Canada’s Reputation

Industrial Development Near Boreal Caribou Habitat in Alberta
Credit: David Dodge, the Pembina Institute

This post was written by Jennifer Skene, Law and Policy Consultant for NRDC


Canada’s international environmental reputation is quickly becoming as threatened as the country’s boreal caribou. 2018 was supposed to be the year that provinces and the federal government came together to finally protect the caribou’s critical boreal forest habitat. Instead, they are backpedaling, doubling down on policies that prioritize logging and other development at the expense of iconic boreal species. With a recent announcement suspending caribou habitat protections, Alberta has become the latest province to kowtow to industry pressure, just as the international marketplace is calling on Canada to ensure its logging does not come at the expense of species at risk of extinction. Without swift and meaningful action to safeguard caribou habitat, Canada risks tarnishing its image as a country committed to sustainability.


In a year already marked by egregious provincial retreats away from caribou protection, in March Alberta announced that it will be “suspending consideration of conservation lands” and parts of its proposed caribou range plans. These conservation areas would have covered about 6.2 million acres and provided crucial protection for caribou with very little impact on industry. In addition, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Parks, Shannon Phillips, told the Canadian government it cannot pursue caribou recovery “without an infusion of federal funds” and that range planning cannot proceed without a socioeconomic analysis. This essentially grinds the province’s progress on caribou protections to a halt, just when it is needed most.


Boreal caribou in Alberta, like those across Canada, are facing a deeply uncertain future. The province’s caribou populations have declined by 50 percent every eight years for the last two decades, and degradation in every caribou range in Alberta far exceeds  the 35 percent disturbance threshold scientists have deemed necessary to give herds a 60 percent chance of survival. Across Canada, only 14 of the country’s 51 boreal caribou ranges are considered sufficiently intact to support self-sustaining populations. Government reports say caribou could disappear from Canada within the lifetime of children living today.


Despite these alarming declines, Alberta’s announcement is simply the latest in provinces’ trend of allowing rampant caribou habitat degradation. It comes less than two weeks after Quebec decided not to invest the resources necessary to save the decimated Val d’Or caribou, who have declined to no more than 18 individuals as a result of habitat degradation. In February, Ontario proposed renewing industry exemptions to its Endangered Species Act, giving the logging industry substantial leeway to degrade critical caribou habitat. These announcements came shortly after every province and territory missed the October deadline for submitting the caribou protection plans the federal government called for over five years ago. Alberta was the only province to eventually release a half-hearted protection plan, and now even that is being shuttered.



The international marketplace has taken note of the dearth of caribou protections. Last October, a group of companies including Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Ben & Jerry’s with a market cap value of approximately $600 billion called on Canada to act. They voiced their desire for “materials that are free of controversy and have been acquired through sustainable harvesting,” asking for “robust caribou habitat protection plans that are grounded in science” and created in consultation with Indigenous Peoples.


If provinces continue to shirk their responsibility to protect caribou, these and other companies will look to the federal government to take action. Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), the federal government has tools it can use to protect critical caribou habitat if it determines the provinces have failed to do so. These include conservation agreements with provincial governments and other actors, and, where necessary, “safety net” orders to protect critical habitat for five years as provinces and territories work with Indigenous Peoples to develop protection plans.  


The next few months will be critical. Provinces and territories need to step up to create range plans that consider their unique economic and conservation needs. But in the meantime, the federal government will need to use its toolkit under SARA to stem rampant habitat degradation and stop the “talk and log” paradigm that has been the norm for over 15 years. The cost of continued inaction could mean not just the loss of caribou but also the loss of Canada’s international reputation and the marketplace’s trust.