Woodland caribou continue to decline as provinces fail to meet protection deadline

Five years after they were forced to come up with strategies to protect habitat for the boreal caribou, not a single province has met that deadline, according to a federal government progress report released today.

In the meantime, caribou, and their habitat continue to decline

A woodland caribou wanders in the boreal forest in Ontario's Slate Islands. A federal report released today says not enough is being done to protect the caribou and its future is bleak. (Gary and Joannie McGuffin/WWF-Canada)

Five years after they were forced to come up with strategies to protect habitat for the boreal caribou, not a single province has met that deadline, according to a federal government progress report released today.

The report paints a bleak picture for the animal. 

While the regions finish drafting their strategies, the number of caribou continues to decline, the report says.

"I think the provinces and the territories recognize that this is a very complicated subject and involves trying to find a path that will meet the recovery needs of the caribou, but do so in a way that is sensitive to the needs of economic actors in the boreal forest," Jonathan Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary to the environment minister, told reporters Tuesday.

The document also states that while provinces have made some progress on coming up with recovery strategies for the caribou, the iconic species continue to decline in numbers, and the "habitat condition in the majority of ranges has worsened since 2012."

The caribou are found in the boreal forest that stretches like a ribbon across nine provinces and territories. The majority of their habitat falls on provincial Crown land.

In 2012, those jurisdictions were mandated under the federal species at risk act to come up with plans to protect the caribou habitat under their jurisdiction.

Tuesday's report states "provinces and territories have not fully met the Oct. 5, 2017, deadline for completing range plans."

Trying to stop the decline

"However some progress has been achieved," it adds.

British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec released draft or final range plans or portions of strategies. Alberta committed to completing a draft plan by this December and Saskatchewan will also have a draft plan before the end of the year as well.

Manitoba has indicated it will have final plans for five of the nine caribou ranges by next year. The rest will be done by 2020.

Quebec will have the second phase of its provincial action plan by the spring of 2018.

But in the interim, the number of caribou continues to decline.

"The best available data, submitted by provinces and territories, indicates that many boreal caribou local populations continue to decline across Canada," according to the report.

"There are several small local populations, some of which are isolated, that continue to be at greater risk of extirpation or of not achieving or maintaining self-sustaining status."

At the same time more or more of its habitat is disturbed.

A challenging recovery

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has been monitoring the boreal caribou for years. The group's national executive director believes there isn't a balance between the needs of the caribou and economic development.

"If we're going to take balance seriously now, we need to actually make sure that we are actually putting the caribou, at the very minimum, at an equal level with economic development, which I don't think we've been doing, which is why we're in this situation today," Eric Hebert Daly said.

The Forest Products Association, which advocates for Canada wood, pulp and paper producers, has members that operate in the boreal forest. The group's president, Derek Nighbor, said his association is working with Indigenous groups on the ground to protect the caribou and other species.

He added that it's not just industries making the recovery strategy complicated.

"Disturbance plays a role, we know that. But so do predator/prey relationships. So does climate change, nutrition changing. None of that has been considered in most of the work to date," Nighbor said.

He also worries that focusing solely on the caribou may create other problems.

"You don't want to get into a game of Whac-A-Mole on species. So if we're going to pull level A and B for caribou, what impact is that going to have on moose, what does that do to white tail deer, what does that do to grizzly bears?" asked Nighbor.

In the wake of this report, Environment Canada will begin its own assessment of the caribou, and its habitat across the country. That review is expected to be done early in 2018.

Afterwards, it could issue an order to force a province to take action to protect caribou habitat.

Wilkinson said the federal government has done that already for other species, "but that's obviously not where we want to be."