Boreal Caribou Crisis Worsens as Inaction and Delay Continue

Threats to Canada’s boreal caribou were thrown into stark relief when the Canadian federal government announced that provinces and territories failed to meet a deadline to finalize science-based conservations plans for the species.
Boreal caribou
Credit: SteveAllenPhoto / iStock

Written with Courtenay Lewis

Today, threats to Canada’s boreal caribou were thrown into stark relief when the Canadian federal government announced that provinces and territories failed to meet a deadline to finalize science-based conservations plans for the species. Provinces and territories had five years to develop these plans under a deadline set in Canada’s 2012 boreal caribou recovery plan.

The government report that accompanied this announcement paints a bleak picture of the boreal caribou’s status today. The new report shows that no boreal caribou populations are increasing; human-driven disturbances have increased in most boreal caribou ranges; and the species’ overall population continues to decline as industrial disturbances degrade its habitat. (The threats to boreal caribou may be even greater than indicated, as provinces only submitted population data for 30 of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou populations).

The findings of this report are not surprising to anyone who has followed this issue in recent years. The boreal caribou was listed as threatened nearly fifteen years ago, and scientists estimate that if Canada takes no action to protect the species, 30 percent of the current population could disappear in the next 15 years. Yet, industry groups and many of the provinces and territories themselves have continued to delay policies that would finally protect the boreal caribou.

The federal report is the latest evidence that caribou habitat continues to disappear at an alarming rate, due in large part to provinces’ failure to implement science-based, enforceable habitat protection plans. For example, as NRDC has highlighted over the last year, Ontario and Quebec have promoted and enabled rampant logging that has continued to degrade critical caribou habitat, instead of implementing meaningful habitat protection plans.

There is no excuse for provincial and territorial inaction—for decades, science has shown that widespread industrial development erodes caribou habitat, and that boreal caribou populations across Canada are declining as a result. NRDC’s blogs have illustrated how some provinces are shirking their conservation responsibilities, and that communities and companies across North America are calling for action to protect the caribou. Below are some of NRDC’s most recent findings: 

  1. Satellite mapping shows declining caribou habitat across Canada: NRDC recently released new geographic information system (GIS) maps demonstrating how logging and other industrial activities have significantly eroded caribou habitat in Ontario’s boreal forest. These maps followed NRDC’s publication of GIS maps in June, which showed how industrial activity has driven the Val-d’Or herd in Quebec to the brink of local extinction.
  2. Provinces are failing to meet their responsibilities to protect boreal caribou. Ontario, Quebec and Alberta are the provinces with the highest rates of boreal logging, yet they are not providing adequate protection for some of the country’s most threatened boreal species. For example, Ontario has gutted its own endangered species protections to give logging companies a carte blanche to degrade caribou habitat, and Quebec’s initial response to the devastating decline of the Val-d’Or herd was to propose moving the remaining herd members to a zoo, rather than enacting meaningful caribou protections. ​
  3. The marketplace is calling for action: This month, eight companies, with a combined market cap value of nearly $600 billion, wrote to Canada’s federal and provincial governments urging them to protect Canada’s threatened boreal caribou.  The list of signers included Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, H&M, and Ben & Jerry’s. The U.S. marketplace is the largest consumer of boreal product exports, and companies expressed the desire to ensure that these materials do not threaten boreal species or Indigenous cultures.  Scientists, authors, and artists across North America also recently urged Canada’s governments to protect the boreal caribou.
  4. Voluntary agreements have proven insufficient. In August, GIS maps from NRDC showed that the voluntary 2010 Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which was lauded for placing an area the size of Montana under a logging moratorium, did not prevent logging in that region. While voluntary agreements can have positive results, legally enforceable habitat protection will be critical to ensure boreal caribou have a chance at survival. Even logging companies acknowledge that when it comes to protecting boreal habitat, the buck stops with Canada’s policymakers.​
  5. Solutions exist. Strong environmental safeguards developed in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples are essential to ensuring that boreal caribou populations can recover, and that the wishes and autonomy of Indigenous Peoples across the boreal are respected. Many Indigenous Peoples, local governments, NGOs and companies are showing that management solutions can benefit communities and caribou. For example, the forest products company Tembec has been collaborating with the Forest Stewardship Council, SNAP Québec, and the Abitibiwinni First Nation to create a forest management plan that would both preserve caribou habitat and maintain forest operations levels. Many Indigenous Peoples have led the way in proposing conservation regimes that would both support local community needs and protect critical caribou habitat. In British Columbia, the Fort Nelson First Nation released a boreal caribou action plan to protect and recover caribou populations in northeastern British Columbia. In addition, the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table (UPCART) released a historic migratory caribou management plan. While the UPCART plan protects migratory, not boreal caribou, it demonstrates that collaborative planning based on Indigenous and Western knowledge and science can inform sound caribou conservation policy​.​
  6. Industry groups are calling for even further delay. Whether it’s evading responsibility for causing caribou habitat loss, perpetuating the myth that caribou conservation must come at the expense of jobs, or using lawsuits in an attempt to silence public discourse, logging industry groups have deployed a wide array of tactics to delay government action to curb rampant, unsustainable logging practices. However, mapping and scientific research demonstrate a clear correlation between widespread industrial activities like logging and associated infrastructure, and declining caribou populations.

The fate of the boreal caribou relies on swift action by Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments. Today’s progress report underscores that policymakers need to heed the mounds of scientific evidence showing the urgent need for caribou conservation. It is well past time for federal and provincial governments to create science-based caribou habitat protection plans in partnership with Indigenous Peoples. The caribou, and the forest it calls home, cannot afford to wait.