Efforts to save woodland caribou in northern Quebec too costly, says province

A herd of caribou that roam the forests near Val-d'Or, Que. is at risk of extinction. But the province has found protecting the species would be too costly - and they would die off anyway.

Protecting the remaining 18 caribou would cost $76M over 50 years report finds

Quebec's Wildlife Minister Luc Blanchette says the government will focus its efforts on preserving the province's other caribou herds. (Mark Bradley via Parks Canada)

The Quebec government is refusing to back efforts to save a herd of endangered caribou because it's too expensive, and the chances of the caribou surviving are slim to none.

Forests, Wildlife and Parks Minister Luc Blanchette said the province will not pay the $76-million that his ministry estimates is necessary over the next 50 years to protect the habitat of the Val-d'Or caribou, only found in Quebec's Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

In a report published this week, the ministry estimates there are only 18 of these animals still roaming the forests south of Val-d'Or. 

The province had initially planned on moving the herd to a zoo in 2016, an idea that was nixed by environmental groups, which warned the animals would not survive in captivity.

The herd has steadily decreased from around 80 individuals in the 1950s. Blanchette said at this rate, it's unlikely any efforts would be enough to ensure the survival of the species.

"It's a sad situation, but we have to be reasonable," he said in a Facebook video he posted on his professional page on Thursday. He said blocking economic activities on the land occupied by the caribou could cost the region up to 187 direct and indirect jobs.

In the video, Blanchette said the government would instead focus on saving Quebec's other caribou herds, "where we have more chances of success."

Impact of decades of logging, mining

The report put together by the Wildlife Ministry shows the area the province designated in 1989 as a protected zone for the Val-d'Or caribou now holds 2,160 square kilometres of forest, as of 2016.

Only 48 per cent of the area is closed off to the logging industry.

The government wanted to send the caribou to the St. Felicien Zoo in 2016, to educate the public about their plight. (St. Felicien Zoo website)
Several roads have been built to accommodate the heavy machinery, and a major snowmobile trail also runs through the area in the winter.

Environmental activist Henri Jacob said Quebec permitted these activities on land that should have been left pristine.

"If we don't make an effort, [the caribou] won't be able to survive past mistakes," he said. 

Jacob is the president Action-Boréale Abitibi-Témiscamingue, and has been following the evolution of the Val-d'Or herd for decades.

He said there is no guarantee the species would survive even if the government invested massively and blocked all human activity, but he said that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

"I can guarantee, however, that if we don't try, there won't be any left within 10 years," he said.

Not an endangered species

In its report, the ministry identifies the Val-d'Or caribou as being "at very high risk of extinction," yet the herd is still listed as a vulnerable species by the province.

Jacob said this doesn't make sense, given the herd of woodland caribou from Gaspé, which number at around 75, is classified as endangered.
Around 75 woodland caribou, of the mountain ecotype, can be found in the Gaspé region. (Radio-Canada)

Jacob said the government is afraid of applying the term endangered species to the Val-d'Or caribou because it would then be obligated to enforce the federal Species at Risk Act.

"They want to transform our public forests into private forests for the industry," Jacob said.

"We'll be able to say, that us Quebecers, have contributed to the disappearance of an endangered species on our territory."

For the time being, Blanchette said the government will put in place measures to help protect the herd.

Certain secondary logging roads will be closed down, and logging work will continue to be banned in the caribou's habitat until 2019.

Beyond that, Blanchette said the ministry will work on a new preservation plan, with input from citizens' groups.