Photo: National Caribou Recovery Strategy is still a work in progress

By Rachel Plotkin, Biodiversity Policy Analyst

The release of the draft National Caribou Recovery Strategy on Friday, August 26, was a milestone in a campaign to protect caribou under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) that has stretched out over five years.

Under the SARA, the federal government must develop a formal recovery strategy for all of Canada's threatened and endangered species. This strategy must identify the species' critical habitat (the habitat that it needs to survive or recover) based on the best available science, set population objectives and identify key threats and measures to reduce those threats.

In 2005, a draft Caribou Recovery Strategy was presented to the Species at Risk Advisory Council, on which I sit. It did not identify critical habitat. Armed with critical habitat identification for caribou in Saskatchewan Ecojustice executive director Devon Page and I clearly articulated that a recovery strategy that did not identify critical habitat would not only be bad for caribou; it would be illegal.

Environment Canada then delayed the release of the draft recovery strategy, embarking on extensive Aboriginal consultation and appointing a team of 18 of Canada's leading caribou scientists to advise on critical habitat identification. The result was the 2008 Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Woodland Caribou and a summary of the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge, which is expected for release next month.

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The ground-breaking Scientific Review identified that, out of Canada's 57 caribou populations, more than half were deemed not self-sustaining (i.e., unlikely to persist in 100 years) given current trends. It also determined a relationship between levels of disturbance in caribou habitat and caribou survival, indicating that caribou need at least two-thirds of their ranges in undisturbed condition in order to survive. And it provided critical habitat recommendations, stating that critical habitat should be identified at the range level.

This increased anticipation for the release of the draft Recovery Strategy. Would it identify critical habitat based on the recommendations of the scientists? Would it clearly apply the disturbance thresholds? Would it result in further habitat destruction being curtailed in Alberta, where all of the herds were deemed not self-sustaining? Would the Strategy select a recovery target to protect all of Canada's herds, or weaken the target to allow for some of the highly imperiled herds to become extirpated (locally extinct)?

Finally, on August 28, three years later, the draft strategy was released. Below is a brief overview.

While the Recovery Strategy does identify a target of achieving self-sustaining local populations throughout their distribution in Canada, it then breaks Canada's caribou populations into three subgroups, each with different critical habitat identification and protection regimes.

For 19 herds that are currently deemed self-sustaining, 65 per cent of their habitat must be maintained.

For the herds that are not self-sustaining, an arbitrary division was made: 12 were deemed important for connectivity, and for them, undisturbed habitat must be maintained and the range restored to 65 per cent undisturbed habitat within 50 years.

The other 28 self-sustaining herds that aren't self-sustaining, found for the most part in ranges with intense industrial development pressures, were labelled "remaining populations," and are to be "stabilized" instead of recovered over the next 50 years.

Provinces are allowed to permit activities that destroy critical habitat in these 28 ranges if they "provide a plan that will support stabilized local populations through the use of mortality and habitat management tools" and the feds accept this plan and amend the Recovery Strategy. These "management tools" include putting pregnant caribou in pens and killing wolves and other ungulates.

It is unclear from the Recovery Strategy what types of plans would be approved and result in amendments. However, it seems plausible that the feds could approve a plan to allow an expansion of tar sands operations in critical habitat by penning caribou and killing predators while destroying a majority of the critical habitat, as long as plans are in place to attempt to rehabilitate this scarred industrial moonscape into caribou habitat sometime in the future. As you can see, this component of the Recovery Strategy, if used in this way, would be bad for caribou.

It should also be noted that the intent of the Species at Risk Act and Recovery Strategies is not to "stabilize" imperiled populations, but to recover them. And the fact that the caribou stabilization would be attempted with tools like predator control rather than by actually protecting the critical habitat caribou need to survive flies in the face of the science.

On the positive side, the Recovery Strategy and its supplementary science could usher in a new regime of forest management based on range-level planning and the application of disturbance thresholds. This science is critical for ascertaining how to plan for continued industrial activity that maintains sufficient caribou habitat. As a member of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which is working to ensure that the boreal supports both healthy forestry-based communities and healthy caribou populations, I greatly look forward to incorporating the science into our work.

The science is clear: if caribou are to have more than a 60 per cent chance of recovering, they need at least two-thirds of their ranges restored and maintained. The Recovery Strategy comes close to setting this target for the self-sustaining and connectivity herds, but it should apply to it all of the ranges across Canada.

Ultimately, if we are able to reach this management objective, it will be a significant conservation achievement, facilitating not only the recovery of boreal caribou, but also the maintenance and restoration of boreal ecosystems that support them and many other species and provide ecological services to humans and wildlife alike.

September 1, 2011

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