Woodland caribou at a crossroads

Science Matters

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 due to overfishing.

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.

Such a window of opportunity, to protect one of Canada’s most threatened wildlife species, has opened with the release of the federal government’s draft recovery strategy for boreal woodland caribou.

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 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.

If there is good news, it is that the science is clear about what must be done to save this species.

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.

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.

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.

The federal government’s plans will help those herds deemed self-sustaining, but they fall far short of what is necessary to ensure that dozens of herds won’t perish.

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Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Terrestrial Conservation and Science Program director Faisal Moola and biologist Jeff Wells.

www.davidsuzuki.org

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