Canada’s Caribou Protection Delays Bring More Forest Degradation

Canada gives Ontario another year to degrade at-risk caribou habitat, taking it further away from international promises to halt and reverse biodiversity loss.

This blog is co-authored with Rachel Plotkin (Boreal Program Manager, David Suzuki Foundation). It builds on a chapter in the book, Transformative Politics of Nature: Overcoming Barriers to Conservation in Canada, edited by Andrea Olive, Chance Finegan and Karen F. Beazley.

Ontario fails, Canada hesitates and caribou lose. 

It’s been this way for over a decade since the Government of Canada told Ontario to comply with the federal recovery strategy for boreal caribou. Two months ago, the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) declared that critical caribou habitat is not being effectively protected in Ontario, creating an opportunity for the federal government to compel Ontario to halt and reverse caribou decline. (In fact, the federal government previously made this assessment in 2021, but cabinet failed to act.)

This week, Canada once again wavered and, instead of stepping into provincial jurisdiction to protect caribou habitat from further degradation, granted Ontario yet another extension to show compliance with federal protection standards. We expect that over this next year Ontario will once again fail in its mandate to take meaningful action to recover caribou. It’s likely that instead of protecting critical caribou habitat, it will call upon its industry partners to tap former industry scientists, who will once again declare that what caribou need most is more logging. It’s time their longstanding assertion—that logging vast tracts of remaining critical habitat will lead to caribou recovery—should, as they say, “go the way of the dodo.”

The legal and policy frameworks that apply to boreal caribou in Canada are complex, and this complexity is used by industry and provincial governments to justify the continued lack of effective habitat protection. In Canada, provincial and territorial governments have constitutional rights to manage forestry resources. However, while each province has made the commitment to establish legislation and programs that provide for protection and recovery of species at risk, the federal government has the power to intervene in provincial jurisdiction if at-risk habitat is not effectively protected.

Over decades, industrial logging has steadily eroded the older conifer forests boreal caribou rely on for survival. The meta-analysis conducted by caribou researchers for the federal boreal caribou recovery strategy showed a significant relationship between levels of cumulative disturbance in a caribou range and calf survival, a relationship that multiple regional studies have reaffirmed (e.g., COSEWIC, 2014; Hervieux et al., 2013; Rudolph et al., 2017). Research in 2020 concluded that, based on a nationwide analysis representing the full spectrum of regional variation in environmental conditions, “anthropogenic disturbances are the primary agent contributing to boreal caribou declines across Canada.” Of the 51 existing caribou populations, only 15 are considered self-sustaining; that is, likely to persist without human intervention to restore their degraded habitat (and a halt to new degradation).

To give caribou a chance at long-term survival, the recovery strategy directs provinces to reduce disturbance levels—the combination of roads, clearcuts, seismic lines and other developments—in caribou ranges.

Logging roads crisscross the managed forest in Canada. 


Google Earth, with original site documentation from Trevor Hesselink, Wildlands League

Since provincial and territorial governments also receive taxes from industrial activities, this can and often does lead to, at best, contradictory mandates: to recover declining wildlife and expand industrial activity. Today, six of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories still have no specific laws devoted to species at risk conservation. Laws that do exist, such as in Ontario, have been poorly implemented and often rolled back. For example, despite the lack of evidence that forest management is supporting caribou recovery, in 2020, after years of aggressive lobbying, the Government of Ontario granted the forest industry a permanent exemption from having to comply with the province’s Endangered Species Act—essentially removing any regulatory requirement for the industry to prioritize recovery. In addition, when Ontario released its Forest Sector Strategy in the same year, it announced that it would endeavor to almost double industrial logging in the province by 2030.

Why is protection being delayed?

Despite broad agreement among caribou experts about how forest management should be undertaken to sustain boreal caribou and advance their recovery (e.g., through limiting cumulative disturbance within caribou population ranges), significant barriers exist to implementing these strategies.

Ideologies of development and growth without limits

Canada uses natural resources faster than the environment can regenerate them. In North America (and elsewhere), the benefits of continual economic growth are accepted as self‐evident and are for the most part unexamined in mainstream discourse. Industry has co-opted the term “sustainable” to focus primarily on job creation and retention, the so-called “third pillar” in the sustainability stool, while environmental and social needs are often simplified, considered secondary or disregarded altogether. Frequently, significant public resistance arises when actions are taken to establish limits to industrial or other development expansions, even when scientific evidence has shown that much of our consumption is wasteful, unnecessary and does not meaningfully contribute to our quality of life. This sense of the limitless bounty of nature can be traced back to the frontier mindset of colonialists in Canada. The country was established on the false belief that the land was terra nullius, “nobody’s land,” wide open for exploitation. Its large size, with an abundance of water and vast tracts of forest, has given rise to the perspective that significant negative ecological impacts are unlikely and can always be mitigated. 

Fear of job loss

For local communities that have historically depended on natural resource extraction, a significant level of precariousness is associated with a reliance on global commodity markets. Job loss can be cyclical, and when large industrial facilities such as mills or mines close, the impacts can be devastating to small, resource-dependent communities that aren’t buffered by much economic diversity. Globalization, shifting demand and automation have impacted these industries significantly. 

“...the substitution of routine tasks by machines has been happening steadily in the logging and forestry sector. The advent of skidders, mechanical harvesting, and remote chipping has modernized bush operations. GIS, telemetry, and satellite imagery have also optimized harvest planning and access development. Remote sensing of harvesters can grade, sort, and scale product in one operation. These technologies have led to a significant reduction in employment in the logging and forestry industry.” 

Northern Policy Institute (2019)

Ineffective systems to address cumulative disturbance

The combination of human activities on a forest results in cumulative disturbance. Yet, the separation of government ministries, and lack of regional planning, mean that the overall impact of development is often not coordinated or adequately addressed. Unless landscape-level planning, including regional and strategic impact assessments, is prioritized to put limits on how disturbance accumulates, we will continue to see caribou decline. Recently, cumulative disturbance has been further exacerbated by wildfires, about half of which are directly human-caused or appear to be part of climate change trends toward drier summers in many parts of the boreal forest.

Wildlife populations in Canada are under stress from many factors, including climate change, pollution, invasive species and overexploitation, among others. Yet habitat loss and degradation continue to be key drivers of decline for most species at risk in Canada. Caribou conservation efforts can also help achieve other biodiversity and environmental goals. Setting aside large tracts of boreal forests from industrial development to achieve caribou conservation can help to deliver on Canada’s international protected areas commitments (e.g., Global Biodiversity Framework) and potentially on its climate obligations.

Nearly 800 wildlife species are at risk of extirpation (local extinction) or extinction in Canada. Research has shown that boreal caribou can serve as a focal or “umbrella” species, as the key driver of caribou decline, habitat fragmentation, also negatively affects many other species. 

“Protection of the Boreal Caribou’s critical habitat is expected to improve outcomes for 80 other listed species at risk, benefit 90 percent of the bird and mammal species that live in the boreal forest, and provide protection of soil carbon storage hotspots.” 

Environment and Climate Change Canada (June 15, 2023)

This means that, if provinces and territories can manage the boreal forest (the vast majority of which is public/Indigenous homelands) for caribou survival and recovery, these decisions should benefit other wildlife that rely on unfragmented older, conifer forests, too. 

Instead, loss and degradation of habitat continues. This most recent delay will enable thousands more hectares of caribou habitat to be logged, in addition to forests that burn. It also puts Canada further behind in addressing the biodiversity and climate crises.

Julee Boan and Rachel Plotkin have published a chapter explaining the drivers of delays in protecting critical caribou habitat in the book, Transformative Politics of Nature: Overcoming Barriers to Conservation in Canada. Pre-orders for the book are available at University of Toronto Press and Amazon.

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