Ontario Deals a Devastating Blow to Boreal Caribou

Boreal caribou could go extinct in Ontario within the lifetimes of children today. Why, then, is the provincial government proposing logging industry exemptions to their Endangered Species Act?
Boreal caribou
Credit: SteveAllenPhoto / iStock

Authored by Jennifer Skene

As the international marketplace calls on Canada to protect its boreal caribou, Ontario has chosen instead to enable rampant logging in the habitat of this treasured species. Today, without meaningful consultation with stakeholders, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) announced a proposal to extend logging industry exemptions to the province’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) for two years. As we highlighted in an earlier blog, these exemptions, originally enacted in 2013, further threaten Ontario’s declining boreal caribou populations and other at-risk species. This proposal comes on the heels of a report from Canada’s federal government finding that boreal caribou continue to decline across the country and urgently need habitat protection.

Ontario’s proposal is disappointing and troubling, especially given that, less than a decade ago, Ontario was working to become a leader on boreal caribou protection. In 2013, these ESA exemptions signaled the end of those ambitions and now, by proposing to extend the exemptions for two more critical years, the Ontario government demonstrates their willingness to continue ceding control over the fate of the province’s treasured landscapes to the logging industry.

Among other provisions, the exemptions allow logging companies to damage or destroy caribou habitat, as long as they are operating under approved forest management plans. This leaves most of Ontario’s boreal caribou habitat vulnerable to devastating logging activities. Since boreal caribou are an “umbrella species,” whose protection in turn protects other species and boreal ecosystems, Ontario’s greenlighting of caribou habitat degradation is particularly disconcerting. 

Renewing these exemptions would go against the wishes of international consumers of Ontario’s forest products. Last fall, companies with a market cap value of almost $600 billion expressed their desire to purchase forest products that do not come at the expense of boreal caribou. Ontario’s proposal undermines the global marketplace’s confidence that Ontario is committed to sustainable logging in the boreal.

International purchasers of Canada’s forest products recognize that boreal caribou cannot afford to lose more precious habitat. Habitat degradation from logging and other industrial development is the primary threat facing boreal caribou. Scientists have found that, if current rates of caribou decline continue, populations will fall by 30% in the next 14 years. For caribou in Ontario, the situation is just as dire. As maps from both NRDC and the Ontario government show, habitat degradation in caribou ranges is occurring at an alarming rate. Today, only two of Ontario’s fourteen boreal caribou ranges are sufficiently undisturbed to allow the caribou to survive long-term. At current rates of decline, the species could be extinct in the province within the lifetime of children living today.  

This proposal comes at the very time Ontario, under the federal government’s Boreal Caribou Recovery Strategy, should be preparing range plans in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to ensure no more than 35% of each boreal caribou range is degraded. In October, Ontario missed the deadline for submitting these range plans, despite having had five years to draft them. Now, rather than finally living up to its obligations, Ontario continues to move in the wrong direction.

There is still time for Ontario to change course. Ontario should not allow this proposal to go forward and should stop the blanket prioritization of deregulated logging over its at-risk species. The province needs to recognize the international marketplace does not want forest products that come at the expense of threatened species. Instead, global consumers are looking to Ontario to work with Indigenous Peoples to protect boreal caribou habitat and lead the way to a sustainable, responsible future.

If Ontario fails to act, the Trudeau government must step in to protect the boreal caribou—and along with them, Canada’s reputation as a sustainable source of forest products. As the fate of boreal caribou and other boreal species hangs in the balance, leadership—if not from Ontario, then from the federal government—is needed now more than ever to protect one of the world’s last great forests.

To take action to protect Canada’s boreal forest, click here