The Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), a trade group representing major wood, pulp, and paper producers, has a track record of using misinformation to confuse public understanding of what’s driving the decline of caribou in Canada’s boreal forest. It’s no surprise, therefore, that their new report asserts that the same logging industry responsible for degrading caribou habitat is in fact, saving caribou. Spreading misinformation that obscures a threat is an old tool—tobacco companies claimed smoking was healthy; fossil fuel companies claimed climate change was a myth; and in recent years forestry trade groups have used “manufactured uncertainty” in a way that decouples the industrial clearcutting of boreal forests from the rapid decline of forest-dwelling caribou populations. In its new report, FPAC claims it’s going to great lengths to protect caribou, when in fact FPAC has a history of actively undermining caribou conservation.
For decades, scientists have shown that industrial activities that degrade and destroy boreal caribou habitat—particularly, logging—are the principal threat to boreal caribou, alongside increased rates of predation as caribou become more exposed to attacks. Boreal caribou habitat destruction is the main reason this animal’s population has plummeted in recent years, which was key to shaping the federal government’s boreal caribou recovery strategy in 2012. This strategy required Canada’s provinces to complete boreal caribou range plans, which would limit degradation in boreal caribou habitat, by the fall of 2017. All provinces missed this deadline.
Instead of taking responsibility for their activities and supporting more sustainable policies, FPAC has denied the impact of widespread logging on caribou, disseminated misinformation, and resisted government safeguards around logging activities. Over the last year, FPAC has:
- Obscured the cause of boreal caribou decline by referencing misleading case studies.
- Questioned the peer-reviewed science underpinning the federal government’s federal recovery strategy, without disproving it.
- Communicated such egregious misinformation about caribou population decline that leading caribou scientists wrote to government officials to correct FPAC’s claims.
- Cherrypicked from a scientist’s research, leading him to say FPAC is misrepresenting caribou science in a “disingenuous” way.
- Referred to the threat of climate change as an excuse for industry inaction, while ignoring that widespread logging exacerbates the problem of climate change.
This week’s report should be read in the broader context of these efforts. Moreover, FPAC’s report comes when provinces’ caribou populations are rapidly declining in the absence of caribou protection plans; the public is looking to the federal government to use its authority to step in and protect threatened caribou; and purchasers of boreal products are urging suppliers to ensure boreal products are acquired sustainably. In this atmosphere, any ostensible confusion about what’s driving caribou decline could delay plans that require logging companies to operate under stricter sustainability requirements.
In its new report, FPAC boasts about new studies and initiatives, claiming that the “forest sector has played a leadership role in working collaboratively with partners to implement the federal recovery strategies for woodland caribou.” In reality, FPAC has challenged critical parts of the federal recovery strategy, particularly by questioning the federal government’s call for the protection of a minimum area of boreal caribou habitat. In its report, FPAC lists various studies it supports that are looking into landscapes’ nutritional value, maternal penning initiatives, disease transmission, and initiatives to kill wolves. Absent in the report, however, is how this industry plans to limit its rapidly growing industrial footprint to a level consistent with the country’s caribou recovery strategy—a conspicuous absence considering that habit loss is the key threat to boreal caribou, and that logging companies play such a key role in this habitat loss.
Each year, industrial activities continue to degrade caribou habitat across Canada’s boreal forest. The government of Ontario, for example, recently showed that each year through 2017, human activities have continued to degrade caribou ranges in the southern part of the province. These activities bring that region beyond the disturbance levels that will threaten southern herds’ ability to exist, if there is not remediation. Ontario isn’t an isolated case: federal government reports show that caribou populations across Canada’s boreal forest continue to rapidly decline.
Beyond diverting attention from the rapid degradation of caribou habitat, FPAC’s messaging is also is doing a disservice to efforts around sustainable development in Canada. For example, some companies and communities have sought a balanced approach that limits caribou habitat disturbance to those outlined in the federal recommendations. Indigenous Peoples like the Fort Nelson First Nation and forestry companies like Rayonier have advocated policies that would both create conservation areas and permit forestry. Rather than engaging in productive conversations about how to create opportunities while limiting caribou habitat disturbance, FPAC has unfortunately released another red herring into the public conversation.
Economic opportunity and conservation can both thrive in Canada’s boreal forest. Threatened boreal caribou populations can recover. But to get there, policy conversations need to be grounded in science. The science around what’s driving caribou population declines is extremely robust, and industry groups that deny this fact postpone and undermine the implementation of reasonable, sustainable policies that would benefit communities and the broader ecosystem.
In Canada, provinces have had years to enact plans that protect critical caribou habitat, and in the absence of provincial leadership, the federal government has the authority to step in to safeguard threatened caribou habitat. As with the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, the world is watching to see whether the federal government will finally step in to protect its species. Some companies and communities have decided to show policymakers that balanced approaches are possible, and that they’ll support science-based landscape level conservation initiatives if it will protect the long-term health of the boreal forest. It’s time for FPAC to do the same.