Friday, February 2, 2018

The Real Threat to Boreal Caribou: Our Elected Leaders

Anyone who saw pictures of caribou being flown on government helicopters from one remote Lake Superior island to another could have been left scratching their heads, wondering just what was going on. But after years of lobbying by local residents, including those from the Michipicoten First Nation, the government of Ontario finally took action to save some of the caribou on Michipicoten Island (see: “Government launches operation to move endangered caribou herd off wolf-laden island,” CTV News, January 13, 2018).

The Michipicoten herd was prosperous, having been re-introduced to the Island in the 1980s.  That changed a few years ago when the passage between the Island and the mainland froze over, allowing wolves to migrate to the Island.  The wolves had easy pickings, and their numbers grew, while the caribou herd declined.  Local residents sounded the alarm at the time, but Ontario took no action against the predators.  Now, with the herd finally devastated, a lucky few are being relocated to the nearby Slate Islands (see: “Superior Caribou a case study in more ways than one: Carol Hughes, MP,”, January 18, 2018).

The Michipicoten Island episode is indicative of the sad state of management of boreal caribou.  This iconic animal is under threat throughout Canada, largely due to habitat destruction and loss attributable to industrial forestry activities, climate change and the urbanization of boreal regions.  Predation is also a factor – but the Michipicoten experience aside, it's generally one that is exacerbated by development activities that change predator/prey dynamics.

Ultimately, the real cause of the declining health of caribou herd are the elected officials who have largely turned their backs on their legislative duties to protect threatened and endangered species generally, and the boreal caribou specifically (see: “Will anyone act to save the caribou? Ontario is not,” the Toronto Star, October 25, 2017).

Canada has long identified boreal caribou as a species at risk.  In 2012, Canada developed a Recovery Strategy for caribou.  Federal legislation requires the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change to release a progress report within 180 days of posting the Recovery Strategy to the Species at Risk Act public registry.   The progress report is intended to identify where habitat is being protected, where it isn't, and act as an evidence-based guide for future actions and strategies for habitat protection.  Almost 5 years later, Canadians are still waiting for that first progress report (see: “Progress Report on the State of Boreal Caribou Critical Habitat Protection in Canada,” the Wildlands League, October 2017).

Our federal government isn't the only delinquent here.  The federal Recovery Strategy also directed the provinces to develop range plans to maintain and enhance caribou habitat.  The 5-year deadline for these plans came in went in the fall of 2017 with not one Province submitting a plan (see: “Canadian provinces, territories miss crucial deadline for caribou protection,” the David Suzuki Foundation, October 6, 2017).

Here in Ontario, the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry has long exempted forestry industries from the provisions of Ontario's Species at Risk Act, 2007.  Instead, the Minister relies on the Crown Forest Sustainability Act of 1994 to manage caribou and protect habitat, even though that Act lacks mandatory and enforceable protection against destruction.

Exemptions from the much stronger Species at Risk Act were finally due to run out this summer, giving those concerned about caribou some hope that the government might finally consider getting serious about habitat protection from industrial activities (see: "Caribou activists stir up northern businesses,” Northern Ontario Business, November 23, 2017). Those hopes were dashed last week when Ontario's Liberal government, in a cynical election-year ploy, decided to pander to powerful industrial and municipal lobbyists (see:“Plan to allow logging threatens caribou, says environmentalists,” Radio Canada International, January 22, 2018).  With two new Northern ridings potentially in play for the Liberals, extending exemptions to industry to continue to operate outside of Species at Risk legislation for two more years may bring peace to the region and protection for at-risk Liberals politicians.

As for at-risk caribou?  Well, at least Ontario was able to save a few animals from the Michipicoten Island herd from imminent death.  But year after year of inaction continues to place this iconic animal species in jeopardy – all because decision-makers refuse to take biodiversity loss and sustainable resource development in the boreal region seriously (see: “Statement: Greenpeace Reacts to Forestry Exemptions Under Ontario's Species at Risk Act,” Greenpeace Canada, January 19, 2018).

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star as, "Politicians the real threat to our boreal caribou," January 27, 2018 (online via Pressreader only)