Thunder Bay

Ontario pledges $29M to protect boreal caribou — but the spending isn't without criticism

The Ontario government has promised to spend $29 million over four years to protect boreal caribou, an iconic animal that's been considered threatened for more than a decade. But some proponents say the province's strategy isn't doing enough to preserve the species.

4-year funding plan to support habitat restoration, protection and monitoring

Three boreal caribou stand on a rocky hill.
Boreal caribou gather near the Devil's Bite trail in Newfoundland and Labrador in this August 2008 photo. The Ontario government is spending $29 million to protect boreal caribou. (Walter Anderson/The Canadian Press)

Ontario plans to spend $29 million to help protect an iconic — and threatened — species: boreal caribou.

David Piccini, the provincial minister of environment, conservation and parks, made the announcement Wednesday at Lakehead University's campus in Thunder Bay, Ont.

The funding will be distributed over four years to support habitat restoration and protection as well as monitoring, science and research. It is intended to complement the five-year Canada-Ontario Agreement for the Conservation of Caribou, Boreal Population in Ontario, finalized at the end of 2022.

"What's more important than the dollar figure are the people we're going to work with to achieve the spirit of this agreement," Piccini said during the funding announcement.

Collaboration with Indigenous communities, industry, unions and non-government organizations is a key part of this initiative, he said. 

Boreal caribou have been considered threatened since before the Endangered Species Act took effect in 2008. The provincial government estimates about 5,000 boreal caribou are in Ontario.

A man speaks into a microphone behind a sign that says, "Working for you."
David Piccini, Ontario's minister of environment, conservation and parks, announced Wednesday at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay that the province is spending $29 million to protect boreal caribou. (Sarah Law/CBC)

Environmental advocate Anna Baggio said the numbers are likely much lower than that.

Baggio, conservation director for the Wildlands League, has spent years pushing for policy changes to help boreal caribou populations regenerate. She told CBC News that Ontario has failed to properly monitor all 13 ranges of the species across the province.

While Lakehead University recently received more than $24,000 to help monitor the genetic health of boreal caribou through DNA analysis, Baggio said the province must report updated population estimates for the species and make this information publicly available.

"They're so sensitive to disturbance, they just don't bounce back like rabbits," she said of the caribou population. "Our challenge is that the industry is on a collision course with this iconic animal of Canada because they want the same habitat, they want the same forest."

Federal minister criticizes Ontario's approach

On Wednesday morning, The Canadian Press published excerpts from a letter from federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to the provincial government that criticizes Ontario's approach to protecting boreal caribou.

Currently, logging companies are exempt from certain prohibitions under the province's Endangered Species Act, which means they're permitted to log in places inhabited by species at risk. This exemption came from Schedule 8 of Bill 229 that was passed by the Ford government in December 2020.

If Guilbeault finds Ontario is not effectively protecting boreal caribou, he has the power to recommend a protection order under the federal Species At Risk Act.

Ian Dunn, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Forest Industries Association, spoke of the importance of industry involvement in conservation efforts. He referenced Guilbeault's letter during the announcement Wednesday.

"It is simply dangerous and irresponsible for a federal government to even be considering injunctions across Ontario's north and Quebec's north," Dunn said.

"Canada's commitments to the five-year conservation agreement [need] to be honoured."

While Piccini would not speak directly to the federal minister's comments, he said he'd be meeting in April with Guilbealt to discuss the caribou agreement.

A woman with dark curly hair, sunglasses, and a red jacket smiles.
Anna Baggio, conservation director for the Wildlands League, says the Ontario government needs to do more to protect boreal caribou and their natural habitats. (Trevor Hesselink/Wildlands League photo)

But for longtime caribou advocate Baggio, meetings just aren't enough anymore. She said the days of talking and logging — and talking and mining — must end.

"This is not a new file. Ontario should have taken action years ago."

She recognizes the importance of the mining and forestry industries, but said there's a big difference between responsible development and a development-first approach to conservation.

Protecting boreal caribou has a ripple effect in the ecosystem by preserving migratory bird habitats and mitigating climate change by keeping forests intact, she said. The species is also important to Indigenous communities that practise traditional hunting and trapping.

Her hope is for government and industry officials to listen to the recommendations that have been made by environmental groups and Indigenous leaders for years.

"We just can't afford to be logging some of these intact forests anymore. The climate costs are too high," she said.

"I know that we can come up with these plans because I've done it and seen it happen. We're just missing that leadership from Ontario." 


Sarah Law


Sarah Law is a CBC News reporter based in Thunder Bay, Ont., and has also worked for newspapers and online publications elsewhere in the province. Have a story tip? You can reach her at