Written with Courtenay Lewis, Lance Larson and Jennifer Skene
New maps show the consequences of Ontario's failure to establish protection of the boreal caribou and the province's policy exempting the logging industry for its Endangered Species Act (ESA). The boreal caribou is an iconic species which is an indicator species for healthy boreal ecosystems—which is why their decline in the face of logging and other industrial activities is so troubling. Canada’s boreal caribou has been listed as “threatened” in Canada since 2003, and for years the federal government has called on provinces to protect this species. Yet this month, Ontario missed a federally-set five-year deadline for provinces to submit caribou range conservation plans. In 2013, Ontario modified its species protection laws to essentially give industry a carte blanche to degrade caribou habitat. Ontario officials promote the province’s forest products as coming “from sustainably managed forests.” Meanwhile, boreal caribou habitat is rapidly declining, and wildlife experts estimate that boreal caribou are on track to disappear from Ontario within 77 years. NRDC's geographic information system (GIS) maps show the years following Canada’s listing boreal caribou as a threatened species, the province of Ontario allowed the degradation of some of the threatened species’ most vulnerable ranges.
Ontario, and increasingly the federal government, are at a crossroads. Will they take the immediate steps necessary to protect this species, or will they allow the province’s remaining boreal caribou and their forest habitat to disappear?
NRDC Mapping Shows Range Degradation
GIS maps show the extent to which industrial activity, including logging, has rapidly degraded two of the vulnerable caribou ranges for which Ontario was supposed to create conservation plans: the Churchill and Brightsand ranges. The GIS maps show just a section of Ontario’s 14 boreal caribou ranges, but the forest degradation they detail expands well beyond these ranges.
Comparing NRDC Maps with Ontario’s Own Data
The widespread degradation captured in NRDC’s GIS maps tells a story of what caribou habitat erosion looks like on the ground, from clearcuts to associated roads and infrastructure. It also reflects findings by the Government of Ontario—findings which sadly have not inspired the province to create meaningful conservation policies.
The Government of Ontario’s own maps show degradation stretching across the province’s southern boreal region. This degradation is particularly concerning since, under the federal government’s boreal caribou recovery strategy, provinces are meant to ensure that no more than 35 percent of each boreal caribou range is degraded by disturbances—a threshold that scientists say is necessary to give caribou a chance at long-term survival. Yet between 2011 and 2015, estimated disturbance levels jumped from 43.4 to 45.4 percent in the Brightsand range, and from 38.4 to 44.1 percent in the Churchill range.
Ontario government reports say that while a small part of the disturbance on its maps was due to “natural” causes like forest fires, the vast majority was caused by human activity, with logging playing a key role. One report states, “Most of the disturbance history within the Churchill Range involves a long and varied series of forest harvesting events and the associated human infrastructure.”
Disappearing Forest Means Disappearing Caribou
This widespread degradation has a clear consequence: where intact forest disappears, boreal caribou disappear.
Comparing maps from Ontario government reports reveals the strong correlation between industrial activity and areas where caribou have become scarce or non-existent, which also reflects various scientific studies that highlight the link between industrial development and caribou population declines. As detailed below, many of the most devastating consequences of recent industrial activity will not even manifest for a number of years, and the threats to caribou are likely even more substantial than these government maps indicate.
Below is a 2015 government map showing anthropogenic (or human-caused) disturbance, alongside another government map estimating caribou “probability of occupancy” based on 2012 flyovers of the Churchill range:
Comparing government maps of the Brightsand range, of which almost half of the forest has become disturbed, tells a similar story. Boreal caribou appear in intact forest, but virtually disappear from disturbed areas. The government’s “probability of occupancy” estimates for the Brightsand range are based on 2011 flyovers.
Threats to Ontario’s boreal caribou are likely far greater than indicated by the government’s caribou population estimates, which are already based on outdated surveys. Caribou sightings do not indicate that a herd is healthy. Caribou herds require a minimum threshold of undisturbed critical habitat to survive over time. Once a range’s cumulative disturbances pass this threshold, boreal caribou’s ability to move and reproduce can become critically limited, until they become what some federal scientists describe as “the walking dead.” Caribou ranges like Churchill and Brightsand can still recover—but if current trends continue it could become too late.
Because it can take years for caribou populations to reflect industrial activities’ full effects, the true impact of the more recent degradation shown in these GIS maps will likely appear in the coming years.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s own reports provide evidence that both the Churchill and Brightsand boreal caribou herds are declining. Ontario, moreover, estimates that boreal caribou populations are declining in all of its assessed ranges. As NRDC recently highlighted in its profile of a severely threatened caribou herd in Quebec, it can be a matter of mere decades between when a caribou herd is in decline, and is on the brink of local extinction.
How to Protect Boreal Caribou
While these maps tell a concerning story about the plight of boreal caribou in Ontario, the story doesn’t need to have a tragic end. With strong environmental policies, caribou ranges could be protected and restored. For example, Ontario’s own reports note that southern parts of the Churchill range have “the potential to be renewed to suitable habitat” but are “not currently on track to do so.”
However, Ontario just missed an important federal deadline for releasing caribou range protection plans, and its strategies around boreal caribou toothlessly contain no enforceable protections for critical habitat. Ontario has also gutted its own Endangered Species Act by giving industry broad exemptions that allow logging companies and other industries to degrade threatened species’ habitats.
While these facts are enormously disappointing, Ontario can still protect its boreal caribou, but it needs to act quickly.
Ontario can prevent the trend of declining caribou habitat by immediately halting new industrial activity in the critical habitat of caribou ranges that have exceeded 35% disturbance. Ontario should prepare long-term range plans with the consent and partnership of Indigenous Peoples. The province should repeal the Endangered Species Act exemptions it gifted to industry, and it should implement mandatory and enforceable protections against critical habitat destruction.
The federal government, meanwhile, has a critical new opportunity to step in and protect caribou, especially now that Ontario and other provinces have missed the federal deadline for submitting range plans. Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, Canada has the authority to assess which areas remain unprotected, and conserve the vulnerable habitats that need protection.
Time is running out for the boreal caribou. This is the moment for Canada’s federal and provincial governments to demonstrate that they are, in fact, committed to protecting Canada’s iconic caribou. Time will not delay, and if they are to save this treasured species, neither can Canada’s governments.