Friday, August 3, 2018

In No Uncertain Terms, Caribou are Threatened by a Campaign of Denial

There has been a co-ordinated effort underway in Ontario over the past several decades to sow doubt about the scientific basis for needed boreal caribou recovery efforts.  Canada’s iconic boreal caribou has seen its range decrease through habitat destruction.  Efforts to reverse the march to extinction have been thwarted by a campaign of denial led the forestry sector and its lobbyists, right-wing think tanks and conservative politicians. 

The same tactics of denial used by logging-sector lobbyists and their proxies are those we’ve seen used to deny the harmful human health effects of tobacco and asbestos – and to deny the global implications of human-made climate change (see:“Northern families sacrificed for misplaced ideals,” Peter Politis, the North Bay Nugget, November 10, 2017) .  These anti-science tactics create uncertainty in the minds of the public about the solid scientific work that is at odds with a mindset that seeks to exploit the natural environment for profit.  By attacking the science as ‘incomplete’ and ascribing sinister motives to scientists engaged in research and to those championing evidence-based decision-making, real action to address known problems is delayed – which is the ultimate purpose of denial campaigns (see: “May: Political games bad for N. Ontario's reputation,” the Sudbury Star, October 28, 2017).

But don’t just take my word that this denial campaign is being waged against boreal caribou.  After all, I’m a somewhat biased source, having been the past target of right-wing politicians who scream “eco-terrorist” at the tops of their lungs when an individual or organization like Greenpeace takes issue with their junk science based nonsense (see:“Bill C-51 Chill in Northern Ontario Air? Mayors Accuse Greenpeace of Terrorism, Genocide,” Sudbury Steve May, June 4, 2015). This anti-caribou denial campaign has been studied comprehensively, and documented in a ground-breaking peer-reviewed report, “From Climate to Caribou: How Manufactured Uncertainty is Impacting Wildlife Management,” published in the June edition of Wildlife Society Bulletin (see: “From Climate to Caribou: How Manufactured Uncertainty Is Affecting Wildlife Management,” Julee J. Boan, Jay R. Malcolm, Mallory D. Vanier, Dave L. Euler, Faisal M. Moola, Wildlife Society Bulletin, June 2018).

The tactics employed by the deniers fall into three categories: deny the problem exists (and vilify opponents); deny the causes of the problem; and, when all else fails, claim that the problem is too costly to do anything about.  It’s the use of that  last tactic that has led to many calling Premier Doug Ford a climate change denier, after he axed cap and trade without an alternative plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The Wildlife Society Bulletin report, authored by researchers from the Universities of Guelph and Toronto, Lakehead University, and Ontario Nature, provides a sound synopsis of the state of the science related to boreal caribou, using Northern Ontario as a case study.  The report shows that the most significant cause of caribou decline is habitat destruction brought on by the encroachment of human industrial activities – namely logging and road building – is not in dispute among scientists.  Recovery efforts, if implemented appropriately, can still have positive effects on restoring measures of health to boreal caribou herds.  And these recovery efforts do not have to significantly impact the viability of Northern Ontario’s forestry sector – but management of forestry resources will need to become less profit-driven and more sustainable.

The report’s conclusions are troubling: an orchestrated anti-science campaign led by the Ontario Forest Industries Association (OFIA) has managed to successfully hold off the implementation of science-based boreal caribou recovery efforts in Ontario’s north. Worse, the Ontario government has been complicit with lobbyists by continuing to exempt the forestry industry from the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, and by subsidizing the building and maintenance of industrial logging roads to the tune of approximately $60 million annually.

This has simply got to stop.  Canada’s iconic boreal caribou can still be saved from extirpation in Northern Ontario, but only if recovery plans are fully implemented.  Let’s hope that Ontario’s new government – which appears to be prioritizing the conservation of natural areas as a signature piece of their environmental agenda – gets the message that evidence-based caribou recovery efforts must trump an industry-led campaign of manufactured uncertainty.  

(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 as "Caribou Threatened by a Campaign of Denial," in the Sudbury Star, July 14, 2018.

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