Can Quebec's dwindling caribou herds be saved? Environmental groups nix options under study

A commission looking into the future of Quebec's woodland and mountain caribou population is about to launch public consultations to consider two options for conserving the species. Environmental groups say neither option is acceptable.

Commission set to hold hearings starting in April on stark options for conserving species, forestry jobs

A commission looking into the future of Quebec's woodland and mountain caribou population is floating two hypothetical options for conserving the species, which will be studied in several public consultations beginning mid-April. (Submitted by Jean-Simon Bégin)

How much are Quebecers willing to pay to save the province's caribou?

That's the question being asked by the province's independent commission on woodland and mountain caribou.

The commission will launch a series of regional public hearings this spring to gather participants' opinions on two theoretical scenarios to protect the species. 

Of the two proposed scenarios, one would do little to protect a quarter of Quebec's caribou habitats and would have minimal impact on logging. The other involves putting in place more measures to protect caribou but would cost the province millions of dollars and eliminate hundreds of jobs in the forest industry.

The commission's mandate is not to analyze the causes of the decline in caribou numbers, said Nancy Gélinas, dean of the faculty of forestry, geography and geomatics at Université Laval, who is chairing the commission.

"We will not become caribou experts," she said. 

Instead, Gélinas said the objective is to make recommendations that will both "protect caribou habitats and limit the socio-economic impacts of this protection."

2 hypothetical scenarios

On Thursday, representatives of Quebec's Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks presented the two scenarios it had developed as part of the work of the commission.

The first case, more favourable to caribou populations in Quebec, is based on an update to the work started in 2019. It would necessitate spending tens of millions of dollars to rehabilitate some caribou habitats that have been severely damaged by human disturbance, notably by the presence of logging roads and logging operations. 

There would also have to be spending on management and protection measures for the caribou.

Depriving the forestry industry of those habitats would translate into a loss of a little more than 900,000 cubic metres of wood per year, according to the documents presented Thursday. That would mean a loss of about 841 jobs in the forestry industry, which directly employs some 60,000 Quebecers. 

Of the two options presented by the commission, one would do little to protect a quarter of Quebec caribou habitats and would have minimal impact on logging, while the other would implement some caribou protection measures and eliminate jobs and economic benefits for the forestry industry. (Radio-Canada)

The second scenario proposes concentrating caribou protection efforts in areas where the chances of success are highest.

That would amount to wiping out three struggling herds of woodland caribou, namely those in the regions of Val-d'Or, Charlevoix and Pipmuacan, and in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, as well as the caribou population in Péribonka. 

Under this scenario, which would have no impact on the forestry industry, Quebec would eliminate habitat restoration areas and would abolish all corridors connecting the habitats where caribou can thrive. Except for the Gaspé region, no territory south of Amos, in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, would be protected.

Scenario 1 plans to maintain restoration zones for Charlevoix, Val-d'Or, Pipmuacan and Péribonka. These areas and the corridors connecting them disappear in scenario 2. The cross-hatched portions are the same for both scenarios. (Courtesy of the Quebec governmnet )

Neither scenario acceptable, say environmental groups

The commission's documents have already been criticized by environmental groups, which are calling for immediate action to save the caribou herds.

The executive director of Nature Québec, Alice-Anne Simard, said there should not be any scenario that "will lead to the extinction" of a quarter of the caribou habitats in the province and that will eliminate all connecting corridors between those habitats.

She said the first scenario is the only one that should be considered, and even that needs improvement. 

"The first scenario is already a compromise between the needs of the species to ensure its recovery and the demands of the forestry industry," said Simard. 

Another group, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), said it intends to boycott the commission, as the options presented seem to favour the forestry industry and won't do nearly enough to save the caribou. 

Quebec's woodland caribou are listed as an endangered species by the federal government. Environmental groups say the options presented by the commission seem to favour the forestry industry and won't do nearly enough to save the caribou. (Katrina Noel/Radio-Canada)

"The two scenarios that they are proposing, the one that would be the best for caribou is not enough. It sends the message that they're not really interested in saving the species," said CPAWS executive director Alain Branchaud.

He said CPAWS is also looking at legal options to force the province to protect its caribou herds.

The commission emphasized that its work is not intended to choose between one scenario or the other, but rather to stimulate reflection and frame the discussion using two extreme options. 

The in-person consultations will begin on April 12 in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, in the Gaspé region, and will end on May 17 in Baie-Comeau, on Quebec's North Shore. The schedule also includes stops in Baie-Saint-Paul, La Sarre, Val-d'Or, Chibougamau and Alma. 

The commission will meet citizens, including representatives of First Nations communities, as well as stakeholders from the regions concerned to hear their opinions on these hypothetical scenarios.

Quebecers are invited to express their views by participating in one of the public hearings, submitting a brief or filling out an online questionnaire.

Once the consultations are over, the commission will submit its recommendations to the government before the end of the summer.

With files from Kate McKenna and Radio-Canada