With Woodland Caribou on Brink, Canada Delays Action…Again

Late Thursday evening, in response to public pressure, the Canadian federal government quietly released a draft “Action Plan for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal Population, in Canada.” This “Action Plan” draft provides an outline for research, protection, and reporting that should have been established five years ago when the federal government released its first recovery strategy for the species. Instead, the draft signals that provincial governments have failed to create woodland caribou protection and recovery plans despite being given five years to do so; and that, if provincial inaction continues, the Canadian government must make an immediate decision on whether it is indeed committed to protecting this species’ survival across its ranges in the boreal forest.

Woodland caribou are a bellwether species for the health of the boreal forest ecosystem, which spans much of Canada. For survival, they depend on vast tracts of undisturbed forest to provide the nutrients and the protection from predators they require. Over time, woodland caribou have come under continual threat as industrial activities within Canada’s boreal forest zone including logging, mining, road-building, and hydro-electric development have moved north, infringing on the large undisturbed forests they require to survive.

Woodland caribou.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The first woodland caribou herd was listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA)—which is the country’s equivalent to the United State’s Endangered Species Act (ESA)—way back in 1984. Today, woodland caribou are listed as “threatened” in all provinces containing boreal forest (ten, in total). The federal government produced a proposed caribou recovery strategy in 2012, calling on provinces to submit plans to protect remaining herds within the next 5 years. Today, the best available data suggests that only 17 of Canada’s 57 identified woodland caribou herds are self-sustaining, and reports published in 2014 found that up to 30% of woodland caribou could disappear from the boreal forest within 15 years. And it’s starting to happen, with the plight of the greatly depleted Val d’Or, Quebec woodland caribou herd providing a grim warning of what the future could hold if action to protect remaining critical habitat is not taken today.

So why is the government’s latest draft plan a cause for ongoing concern? The simple answer is that it is just more of the same inaction that has characterized their approach thus far: a call for more research, more collaboration, and possible future action at a time when completed scientific studies make clear what we already know. Woodland caribou are disappearing at an alarming rate. Given that reality, Canada needs to pause industrial activities in critical caribou habitat until enforceable plans are in place to ensure that habitat is adequately protected to ensure the species’ survival throughout Canada’s boreal forest.

Woodland caribou are disappearing at an alarming rate. Given that reality, Canada needs to pause industrial activities in critical caribou habitat until enforceable plans are in place to ensure that habitat is adequately protected to ensure the species’ survival throughout Canada’s boreal forest.

Examining the draft plan’s key provisions, it unfortunately appears that the Canadian government is comfortable kicking the can further down the road:

Actions

Priority

Timeline

Conduct research to enhance understanding of the relationship between disturbance and boreal caribou population response to inform range and action planning.

High

December 2017

Conduct scientific analysis to inform a national risk management approach to secure recovery outcomes for boreal caribou ranges in Canada.

High

December 2018

Conduct research to develop scientifically robust approaches and standards for identification of local population ranges.

High

September 2018

There is no question that ongoing research into these types of questions is important, but the government itself has done enough of this work already to inform and drive decisions. Thus, if provinces fail to meet the October 2017 deadline for providing woodland caribou protection and recovery plans, the federal government must be prepared to take immediate action. Creating space for further delay under the auspices of conducting research simply puts caribou populations at further risk of decline. Canada must act now to create the conditions necessary “to secure recovery outcomes for boreal caribou ranges in Canada.” A delay risks ensuring that this goal cannot be met at all.

Creating space for further delay under the auspices of conducting research simply puts caribou populations at further risk of decline.

Actions

Priority

Timeline

Undertake protection assessments of critical habitat on non-federal lands.

High

2017-2018

Explore the establishment of conservation agreements with provinces and territories to codify provincial and territorial measures to protect and recover caribou.

High

Following receipt of range plans

Protect critical habitat on federally-administered lands through a section 58 order or section 59 regulation.

High

2018

Similar to the actions highlighted in the first table, these are certainly the right actions to take, but they are actions that should have already been taken. The fact that the federal government is only mentioning them now as priorities for a year or two down the road raises serious concern that the federal government is willing to cede its authority to the provinces, who have failed to take meaningful action to prevent the extinction of woodland caribou herds and have expressed little intention of doing so in the future. Under SARA, the Canadian federal government has the authority to freeze industrial activity within the critical habitat of threatened species, but it has been unwilling to do so as provinces continue to drag their feet on caribou protection and recovery plans. If this foot-dragging continues, the survival of the woodland caribou and the existence of viable habitat becomes more and more ephemeral.

So what can be done? The Canadian federal government needs to take immediate actions that ensure existing critical woodland caribou habitat is not disturbed. As the “Action Plan” mentions, provinces are required to submit caribou range plans by October 2017. If they fail to do so, the government should exercise its federal authority under SARA to make sure the provinces’ failure to fulfill their conservation obligations does not jeopardize the future of the woodland caribou. Following this action, the federal and provincial governments must work with indigenous communities, industry, and civil society to outline a path forward for boreal forest protection that will achieve meaningful woodland caribou protection, chart mechanisms to recover caribou populations, and clearly define how and where future industrial activity can take place such that it does not threaten the future of this treasured species.

This is not an uncharted pathway. Already, First Nations are taking a leadership role in protecting woodland caribou, identifying and advocating for areas that must be protected, and raising awareness of the animal's importance to their cultures, and, by extension, Canada's culture. Via indigenous leadership and their deep knowledge of this iconic species, Canada can successfully navigate a pathway toward restoring woodland caribou and its habitat and the boreal forest it calls home.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Manager of fossil fuels and climate policy, Canada Project, International Program

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