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Woodland Caribou Are at a Crossroads

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As a nation and a global community, Canada has a history of ignoring environmental crises until it's all but too late. Many of us remember the 1990s, when tens of thousands of Canadians in the Maritimes lost their livelihoods after overfishing wiped out fish stocks.

The boom-and-bust history reflected in the collapse of the East Coast cod fishery, and in logging communities and mining towns, should teach us that when an opportunity to get something right on the environment comes along we must take immediate action or suffer the inevitable ecological and social consequences of our own short-sightedness.

Such a window of opportunity, to protect one of Canada's most threatened wildlife species, has opened with the long-awaited release of the federal government's draft recovery strategy for boreal woodland caribou. The boreal caribou is an iconic species threatened with extinction from the Yukon right across the country to Labrador. (The draft strategy is open to public comment until Oct. 25, at www.sararegistry.gc.ca.)

A major prey species for wolves and other animals, including humans, woodland caribou are critical to sustaining the health of complex food webs that have evolved over millennia and to the well-being of hundreds of Aboriginal communities in the North that depend on the animal for sustenance and survival.

Although woodland caribou were once abundant throughout much of Canada and the northern United States, they have since lost around half of their historical range because of logging, mining, seismic lines, roads, hydroelectric projects, and other developments that have disturbed and fragmented their forest habitat.

One endangered herd in Alberta's tar sands region west of Fort McMurray is at great risk of disappearing. Clear-cutting and no-holds-barred oil and gas exploration and development have affected more than 60 per cent of the habitat of the Red Earth caribou herd, leaving little undisturbed forest where it can feed, breed, and roam.

If there is good news, it is that the science is clear about what must be done to save this species from extinction. A recent analysis by experts with the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel concludes that governments need to ensure that large stretches of woodland caribou habitat are protected from industrial disturbance. Specifically, herds will need at least two thirds of their ranges to be maintained in an undisturbed condition or restored to such. In core areas this could mean from 10,000 to 15,000 square kilometres of old-growth boreal forest being set aside.

Under the federal Species at Risk Act, recovery strategies must use the best available science and traditional Aboriginal knowledge to identify habitat the species needs to survive and recover. The government must also set population objectives and identify threats to species survival and how these threats can be reduced through better management.

The federal government has incorporated some of the important ideas advanced by scientists. Under the recovery strategy, core habitat will be protected for about half the herds left in Canada. However, the strategy suffers from serious shortcomings. Many herds, deemed not to be self-sustaining, appear to have been written off to remove barriers to further industrial activities in their habitat, such as tar sands development in Alberta. Instead of protecting and restoring the remaining habitat of these herds, the government is proposing controversial band-aid measures like killing thousands of wolves and other predators. This kind of management is aimed at stabilizing declining caribou populations rather than recovering them -- a contravention of Canada's Species at Risk Act.

Canada's official recovery strategy and supporting science show that if caribou are to survive, huge areas of the boreal will need to be protected, and we will have to embark on a more ecological approach to industrial development in those places that we exploit for timber and drill, frack, and strip-mine for fossil fuels. Environmentalists and forestry companies are already attempting that by working together under the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement to develop joint caribou conservation plans that protect habitat while ensuring that the economic viability of companies is maintained.

The federal government's plans will help those herds that have been deemed self-sustaining, but they fall far short of what is necessary to ensure that dozens of herds won't perish. As such, it is a compromise that is too costly for caribou, and ultimately our own country, to bear.

Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Terrestrial Conservation and Science Program director Faisal Moola and biologist Jeff Wells.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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