On­tario’s cari­bou are in big trou­ble

Only 14 of 51 herds are sus­tain­able

Annex Post - - LIFE - DAVID SUZUKI

Oct. 5 came and went, and Canada’s bo­real wood­land cari­bou are still in trou­ble. That was the dead­line the fed­eral gov­ern­ment gave prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries five years ago to come up with cari­bou range plans for the iconic an­i­mals. Not one met the dead­line.

Why should we care about cari­bou? Beyond the fact that we should care about all an­i­mals that play im­por­tant roles in the eco­log­i­cal makeup of this “su­per nat­u­ral” coun­try, cari­bou are in­di­ca­tors of for­est health. When cari­bou are healthy, it’s a sign the forests they live in are healthy. Forests pro­vide eco­log­i­cal ser­vices, such as pre­vent­ing floods, stor­ing car­bon and reg­u­lat­ing cli­mate, as well as habi­tat for an­i­mals and plants and liveli­hoods and re­sources for peo­ple.

Fail­ing to pro­tect cari­bou habi­tat af­fects many Indige­nous peo­ples’ rights, cul­tures and tra­di­tional liveli­hoods and risks tar­nish­ing Canada’s rep­u­ta­tion in the global mar­ket­place. U.S. and in­ter­na­tional cus­tomers buy our prod­ucts on the un­der­stand­ing that we’ll pro­tect wildlife and hon­our com­mit­ments to Indige­nous peo­ples.

In 2012, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s re­cov­ery strat­egy for bo­real cari­bou con­cluded that only 14 of 51 herds were healthy enough to sus­tain them­selves. The strat­egy, de­vel­oped by 18 top cari­bou sci­en­tists, es­tab­lished a strong re­la­tion­ship be­tween the ex­tent of habi­tat dis­tur­bance and whether a lo­cal pop­u­la­tion in­creases, de­clines or re­mains sta­ble.

The re­cov­ery strat­egy iden­ti­fies a min­i­mum of 65 per cent undis­turbed habi­tat in a range as the “dis­tur­bance man­age­ment thresh­old.” Based on this, the gov­ern­ment gave prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries five years to de­velop plans to pro­tect or re­store crit­i­cal habi­tat.

In the face of in­ef­fec­tive stop-gap mea­sures — like killing preda­tors, such as wolves and bears, and pen­ning fe­male cari­bou to keep preda­tors away — many sci­en­tists, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and First Na­tions have been call­ing on gov­ern­ments to ad­dress the real prob­lem: cu­mu­la­tive dis­tur­bance. Roads and seis­mic lines for forestry, mining and oil and gas op­er­a­tions, along with in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity, have frag­mented and de­graded cari­bou habi­tat, al­ter­ing preda­tor-prey dy­nam­ics.

In re­sponse to the ob­vi­ous need for im­me­di­ate ac­tion to pro­tect and re­store cari­bou habi­tat to re­verse the crea­tures’ de­cline across the coun­try, the For­est Prod­ucts As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada has done its part to stall the nec­es­sary changes. It claims, among other ar­gu­ments, that the re­cov­ery strat­egy is be­ing rushed; the sci­ence is un­cer­tain, in­com­plete and out of date; the 65/35 dis­tur­bance thresh­old is too rigid; bo­real cari­bou are re­cov­er­ing with good man­age­ment plans across the coun­try; and cli­mate change isn’t be­ing con­sid­ered as a ma­jor cause of de­cline.

Cari­bou don’t have time to wait, and the sci­ence is clear. Many herds were iden­ti­fied as threat­ened more than 17 years ago, and prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries have had five years to come up with plans. Although the causes of cari­bou de­cline are var­ied and com­plex, decades of re­search have shown habi­tat degra­da­tion is a ma­jor fac­tor and habi­tat pro­tec­tion and restora­tion must be the foun­da­tion for re­cov­ery plans.

As for rigid­ity, prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries have been given space to vary their plans based on sci­ence, but even pro­tect­ing or restor­ing 65 per cent in­tact habi­tat only gives cari­bou a 60 per cent chance of survival.

Cli­mate change is, of course, a fac­tor in the de­cline of many plants and an­i­mals, but that doesn’t ex­plain the rapid de­cline of cari­bou, nor should it be used as an ex­cuse to ig­nore habi­tat de­struc­tion.

In­dus­trial re­source-ex­trac­tion op­er­a­tors of­ten claim their prac­tices are sus­tain­able. Yet these prac­tices have con­trib­uted to cari­bou de­cline, and, un­der the cur­rent man­age­ment regime, there is no ev­i­dence herds are re­cov­er­ing. Ei­ther the re­search shows con­tin­ued de­clines or, in some cases such as On­tario, pop­u­la­tions haven’t been mon­i­tored for four to six years. It’s time for gov­ern­ments and in­dus­try to stop drag­ging their heels. Habi­tat main­te­nance and restora­tion should be rec­og­nized as a cost of do­ing busi­ness in the bo­real.

Yes, we need to con­tinue study­ing cari­bou and ways to keep their pop­u­la­tions sta­ble, and in­dus­try has an im­por­tant role to play. Stalling, rais­ing doubt about the re­search and ex­empt­ing in­dus­try from reg­u­la­tions, as On­tario has done, will in­crease risks for bo­real cari­bou.

Gov­ern­ments and in­dus­try must work with Indige­nous peo­ples to stop in­dus­trial ex­pan­sion in bo­real cari­bou ranges that have ex­ceeded 35 per cent dis­tur­bance and take im­me­di­ate steps to re­store and pro­tect crit­i­cal habi­tat. Time is run­ning out.

Ed­i­tor’s note: You can make a do­na­tion to on­tar­i­on­a­ture.org to sup­port their ef­forts to pro­tect On­tario’s wood­land cari­bou.

In or­der to sur­vive, bo­real wood­land cari­bou need the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment to pro­tect and re­store their habi­tat

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