Two weeks after individual Canadian provinces and territories failed to submit range plans for the threatened boreal caribou, eight major companies have called on the provinces and the federal government to act. The list of signers includes Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, H&M, Ben & Jerry’s and many more.
These companies, with a combined market cap value of nearly $600 billion, are major purchasers of harvested wood products from Canada’s boreal forest. U.S. purchasers represent more than half of all boreal wood exports, and more than 80% of those exports coming from Ontario and Quebec, where much of the logging in Canada’s boreal forest is currently taking place. As such, U.S. consumers have a major stake in ensuring their demand for boreal forest products does not come at the expense of the species that rely on it and to the integrity of the forest as a whole. Today’s signatories have resoundingly called for stronger protections for the boreal caribou.
The backdrop for this letter is a years-long effort to protect Canada’s boreal caribou, a Canadian icon in crisis. The Canadian government designated the species as threatened under its Species at Risk Act (SARA) nearly 15 years ago, and since then the prognosis has only worsened. Now, just 14 of Canada’s 51 boreal caribou herds are still considered “self-sustaining,” meaning that they will continue to persist in the boreal without intervention. Without action to protect boreal caribou habitat, the caribou could be gone forever in a matter of decades. Wildlife scientists predict that if nothing changes, boreal caribou populations could decline by 30 percent in the next 15 years alone.
In the southern part of their range, the primary cause of this population decline is industrial activity in boreal caribou habitat. Boreal caribou are extremely sensitive to habitat disturbances, and so any industrial activity like road-building or clearcutting can have significant impacts on the population.
The boreal caribou’s plight is a tragedy in and of itself, but it also carries significant weight because of what it means for Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and what it signifies about the overall health of Canada’s boreal forest. Boreal caribou hold immense value for Indigenous Peoples across Canada. The caribou is part of cultural traditions for hundreds of Indigenous communities. The decline of boreal caribou populations means the loss of culture for many Indigenous Peoples, a fact that cannot be ignored.
Furthermore, the boreal caribou is an indicator species for the overall health of the boreal forest—one of Earth’s last great intact forests. Canada’s boreal is richly biodiverse, a nursery for billions of North American birds and the year-round home to many other iconic large mammals like the Canada lynx and grizzly bears. The forest is also a vast carbon store. When the forest is logged, important habitat is disturbed, ecological processes are disrupted, and carbon is released into the atmosphere, exacerbating our existing climate emergency. The decline of boreal caribou tells us that the boreal forest faces a similar crisis to the species itself.
Despite these facts, Canada’s provinces have been extremely slow to act due, in part, to sustained pressure from Canada’s logging industry. In fact, in the face of deadlines for releasing caribou protection and recovery plans, the Canadian logging industry trade group launched a major campaign calling for further study before Canadian provinces act to protect boreal caribou.
Canada has a reputation for sustainability. That’s why many companies decide to purchase Canadian wood products. As the signers of the letter state, they rely on the country’s conservation efforts to ensure their supply chain is “free of controversy” and “acquired through sustainable harvesting.” A failure to enforce Canada’s endangered species laws and take concrete action to protect boreal caribou habitat at this critical juncture can only undermine the international marketplace’s confidence in the sustainability of boreal forest products.
Science tells us we cannot wait to protect boreal caribou habitat. Now, multi-billion dollar companies are echoing that message to Canadian decision-makers. Canada’s leaders need to recognize that inaction will tarnish their “green” reputation and will threaten the economic advantage they enjoy because of that reputation. Let’s hope they embrace sustainability and act swiftly to protect the iconic boreal caribou before it's too late.