Save the caribou, save the boreal forest, ecologists say

April 7, 2014 by Clement Sabourin
A clear-cut area is seen in Canada's Broadback Valley, one of the last remaining virgin boreal forests of Quebec, on March 12, 2014

Endangered woodland caribou face increasing encroachment on their Canadian habitat, and foot-dragging by the federal government to try to halt this advance could now doom the species.

The cervidae, with its large snout and narrow antlers, called reindeer in Eurasia, has seen colonists, and later forestry, mining and oil and gas exploration companies carve out larger and larger swaths of its vast habitat for human activities.

As a result, its numbers in Canada have fallen steadily over the past 150 years. In Quebec province, only pockets of caribou remain, largely in the north.

This population nosedive led the in June 2003 to list the boreal woodland caribou as threatened, which requires the environment minister to prepare a recovery strategy.

But that did not happen.

Frustrated by multi-year delays in sorting out how to save the caribou and other species at risk, lawyers acting on behalf of five environmental groups—the David Suzuki Foundation, Greenpeace Canada, Sierra Club BC, Wilderness Committee and Wildsight—sued the government.

Canada's diversified economy is still heavily supported by the exploitation of its abundant natural resources, and the plaintiffs accused Ottawa of delay tactics that benefited these industries.

The federal court agreed.

"It is... apparent that the delay encountered in these four cases are just the tip of the iceberg," Federal Court Justice Anne Mactavish said in her decision.

"There is clearly an enormous systemic problem within the relevant ministries, given the respondents' acknowledgement that there remain some 167 species at risk for which recovery strategies have not yet been developed."

A Lagopus bird sits on a tree branch in Canada's Broadback Valley, one of the last remaining virgin boreal forests of Quebec, on March 13, 2014

Mactavish also ordered court oversight of the process to ensure that recovery strategies are produced in a timely fashion.

In response to the lawsuit, the government unveiled a humpback whale strategy, and issued proposed recovery strategies for the white sturgeon, murrelet and caribou, which have yet to be finalized.

Forest industry lobby

Quebec is home to about a quarter of Canada's herds, which are menaced not only by federal inaction but also by successive provincial governments that see wildlife protections as hurdles to job creation and economic growth.

Quebec's forestry sector employs nearly 70,000 people and contributes almost three percent to the province's gross domestic product. And the industry is not shy about throwing its weight around.

Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is hoping for re-election in his hometown district of Roberval, a hotbed of forestry activities, when Quebecers vote Monday.

His party currently leads in the polls and is predicted to unseat the ruling Parti Quebecois.

On the campaign trail, the former neurosurgeon commented that saving the caribou would risk "thousands of jobs, millions of cubic meters of wood and (several) pulp mills."

The Parti Quebecois appears to be equally apathetic about the animal's fate, pledging to invest Can$675 million ($615 million US) over three years to boost provincial logging.

Insisting that it is possible to both save the caribou and increase forestry activities, outgoing Quebec Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet told AFP that the current data on the number of caribou and their range in the province is flawed.

She added that until the numbers are updated, the province has no plans to create a nature park for the caribou that would be off limits to forestry firms.

A 2012 report for the government, however, contradicts the minister's assertions, providing clear numbers and where the animals roam.

Cree tribesmen in Broadback Valley region, about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) north of Montreal, have been lobbying over the past several years for the creation of a 13,000-square-kilometer nature park on their traditional lands, to protect the caribou.

Cree hunters have also stopped this year hunting the animal because, they say, of a sudden and dramatic decline in the local population.

"We only need some political leadership to protect this virgin forest before it's too late," said local Greenpeace chapter head Nicolas Mainville.

Isaac Voyageur, an environmental official with the Cree tribe, said: "They should draw a line between job creation and environmental protection."

Explore further: Native trappers defend Canada forests from logging

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