Ontario fails, Canada hesitates and caribou lose.
It’s been this way for over a decade since the Government of Canada told Ontario to comply with the federal recovery strategy for boreal caribou. Two months ago, the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) declared that critical caribou habitat is not being effectively protected in Ontario, creating an opportunity for the federal government to compel Ontario to halt and reverse caribou decline. (In fact, the federal government previously made this assessment in 2021, but cabinet failed to act.)
This week, Canada once again wavered and, instead of stepping into provincial jurisdiction to protect caribou habitat from further degradation, granted Ontario yet another extension to show compliance with federal protection standards. We expect that over this next year Ontario will once again fail in its mandate to take meaningful action to recover caribou. It’s likely that instead of protecting critical caribou habitat, it will call upon its industry partners to tap former industry scientists, who will once again declare that what caribou need most is more logging. It’s time their longstanding assertion — that logging vast tracts of remaining critical will lead to caribou recovery — should, as they say, “go the way of the dodo.”
The legal and policy frameworks that apply to boreal caribou in Canada are complex, and this complexity is used by industry and provincial governments to justify the continued lack of effective habitat protection. In Canada, provincial and territorial governments have constitutional rights to manage forestry resources. However, while each province has made the commitment to establish legislation and programs that provide for protection and recovery of species at risk, the federal government has the power to intervene in provincial jurisdiction if at-risk habitat is not effectively protected.
Over decades, industrial logging has steadily eroded the older conifer forests boreal caribou rely on for survival. The meta-analysis conducted by caribou researchers for the federal boreal caribou recovery strategy showed a significant relationship between levels of cumulative disturbance in a caribou range and calf survival, a relationship that multiple regional studies have reaffirmed (e.g., COSEWIC, 2014; Hervieux et al., 2013; Rudolph et al., 2017). Research in 2020 concluded that, based on a nationwide analysis representing the full spectrum of regional variation in environmental conditions, “anthropogenic disturbances are the primary agent contributing to boreal caribou declines across Canada.” Of the 51 existing caribou populations, only 15 are considered self-sustaining; that is, likely to persist without human intervention to restore their degraded habitat (and a halt to new degradation).
To give caribou a chance at long-term survival, the recovery strategy directs provinces to reduce disturbance levels — the combination of roads, clearcuts, seismic lines and other developments — in caribou ranges.