Caribou can’t vote. Nor can they take part in the consultations the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is holding this week to solicit feedback concerning the animal’s survival.
As it turns out, a lot of us won’t be participating. MNR issued invitations to some stakeholders asking that they attend a session considering a proposal, that, ultimately, will allow the mining, forestry and hydro industries to operate in parts of the boreal forest that support the province’s threatened woodland caribou population.
Caribou, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a species at risk, face the very real threat of extinction from Ontario if Queen’s Park allows mining and forestry companies to destroy their boreal habitat. That is exactly what the Province is proposing: to exempt all industrial development from regulations under the ESA to protect caribou.
The government’s proposal raises several tough questions.
First, what’s taking so long? Back in 2007, when the government passed the ESA, it promised to “fast track” habitat regulation for ten species at risk, plucked from the long list of dwindling wildlife in Ontario. The iconic woodland caribou was among the chosen 10.
But what did this fast-tracking mean? We were told MNR would produce special regulations to protect each of the ten species by June 2009. That deadline has come and gone. The scientific community and other stakeholders submitted advice, recommendations and studies, yet the Province is now suggesting that northern Ontario’s resource industries, whose activities represent the dominant threat to caribou populations, can continue to operate in key caribou habitat. So much for timely and meaningful protection.
Scientists estimate that global caribou populations are half of what they were 50 years ago. In Ontario, woodland caribou have already lost 50% of their historic range since 1880, an alarming 35,000 square kilometres per decade. That’s more than four times the size of Algonquin Park, every ten years. At this rate, researchers predict that this species may disappear from Ontario by the end of the century.
The fate of woodland caribou matters not only for this particular species, of course, but for the boreal forest ecosystem itself. The health of caribou populations is an indicator of overall forest health. If we protect the woodland caribou, other wildlife that rely on undisturbed, mature boreal ecosystems will also benefit.
Research shows that caribou can tolerate some disturbance in their range — up to a certain threshold. We need scientifically sound regulations, not loopholes, to make sure resource extraction industries don’t cross those thresholds.
More importantly, caribou, an elusive forest presence, need such regulations. Key habitat for woodland caribou is lichen-rich mature conifer forests, containing trees that are 50 to 120 years old.
Surely we can work together to save this remarkable species and the remaining intact parts of the boreal forest that it calls home. Moreover, the promotion of sustainable, eco-friendly practices on the part of industry is good for business. Case in point: Limited Brands (Victoria’s Secret) has made the conservation of woodland caribou habitat an explicit requirement in its purchasing commitments.
There is enough space in this big province for people and caribou to co-exist. During the consultation process, MNR needs to remember that caribou are also stakeholders.
Victoria Foote is Ontario Nature's director of communications and editor of ON Nature magazine.