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Caribou herds and habitat continue to decline: federal report

A wild caribou roams the tundra near The Meadowbank Gold Mine located in the Nunavut Territory of Canada on March 25, 2009. The first federal survey of what the provinces are doing to preserve caribou says both herds and and habitat continue to generally decline. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
October 31, 2017 - 12:12 PM

Canada's woodland caribou herds and the habitat they need continue to decline five years after the provinces agreed to develop strategies to preserve them, a federal study has concluded.

And all provinces and territories are on a six-month deadline to lay out plans showing how they will keep the animal that's featured on the back of the quarter on the land. They have already missed one deadline.

"A number of provinces and territories have taken action," said Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson, parliamentary secretary to the environment minister. "That being said, it clearly is not enough."

But a forestry industry representative said not enough is known about the changing boreal forest to make rules on how much needs to be saved for caribou.

"We can't be cutting corners to the point where it might be doing nothing for caribou and putting thousands of people out of work," said Derek Nighbor of the Forest Products Association of Canada.

The report, released Tuesday, found that none of Canada's 51 caribou herds is growing. Twenty are in decline and not enough is known about 21 of them to even estimate their population trend.

Ten of those declining herds have fewer than 100 animals — some barely more than a couple dozen — leaving them highly vulnerable to being wiped out.

The old-growth boreal forests the caribou depend on are also deteriorating.

Despite five years of attempts to preserve or rehabilitate habitat disturbed by energy development or forestry, only 19 of 51 ranges met federal requirements to be 65 per cent undisturbed — two fewer than in 2012. Industrial disturbance increased in 29 of the ranges.

Only nine ranges were in better shape in 2017 than in 2012.

Last October, a five-year deadline passed for provinces to file detailed plans on how they were going to restore critical habitat.

Several provinces, including Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, have released draft plans. Others have said some of their plans are expected early next year.

None has completely met the terms of the federal bill.

Under the Species At Risk Act, Ottawa will now take until April 2018 to determine whether the provinces have sufficiently protected critical habitat. If they haven't, the environment minister is required to ask for a federal order to do it for them.

Wilkinson said the federal government and the provinces agree all 51 herds can still be preserved, although that could change.

"We're certainly open to engaging the provinces as we move forward," he said. "There would have to be a scientific underpinning to the argument."

Justina Ray, head scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said some herds could disappear in as little as five years if nothing changes. She said the federal report puts the provinces on notice.

"This is the first shot across the bow," she said. "It is making a statement that there is more work that needs to be done."

But Nighbor said not enough is known about the impacts of climate change, predators or invasive diseases to pin all the blame on habitat disturbance. He points out that some herds considered stable live on ranges that are 95 per cent disturbed, although those herds are also protected by massive wolf culls.

"You need to look at all the factors," he said, adding Ottawa also needs to ensure that local communities are involved in decisions.

Wilkinson said governments are willing to take a look at any new science, but something must be done.

"The scientific evidence is very clear, that habitat destruction is directly related to the decline in caribou," he said.

"We need to take action."

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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