The federal government's recovery strategy for boreal woodland caribou, released on October 7, represents a triumph of science over politics. Yes, you heard that correctly! But there's more to the story. It was a hard-won victory, and there's more to do.
Boreal woodland caribou roam over 2.4 million square kilometres of Canada — nearly one quarter of the country. Many herds are under threat from habitat loss and fragmentation due to logging, mining, oil and gas and other industrial development. Under the Species at Risk Act, the federal government must identify in a recovery strategy the "critical habitat" that threatened boreal caribou need to survive. In 2007, the government shared a draft strategy with an advisory council that included David Suzuki Foundation staff. It had a gaping hole in the critical habitat section. We let government know this was not going to fly, and the draft was rescinded.
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Environment Canada then appointed a panel of 16 leading caribou scientists from across North America to determine critical habitat needs of boreal caribou. Their research showed that to survive and recover caribou need at 65 per cent — close to two-thirds — of their habitat to be intact with old trees. That's the minimum; even with 65 per cent of its range in good enough ecological condition to support a herd, the caribou only stand a 60 per cent chance of surviving in the next 100 years.
The habitat requirements left the pro-development government with a dilemma; environmental groups thought they were pushing the envelope by asking for at least 50 per cent protection for the boreal less than a decade ago. The feds responded by releasing another draft recovery strategy that stamped political objectives on top of the science, such as keeping the tar sands operating without impediment. It included recovery objectives and management regimes for "grey" herds in areas with high development activity and pressure that were different than those for herds in areas with fewer development pressures. Even worse, this draft suggested herds could be managed by shooting predators such as wolves while allowing habitat destruction to continue.
Environmental groups and First Nations in the boreal fought back and more than 19,000 comments were submitted. The government then did the right thing. It released a strategy on October 7 requiring provinces to develop plans that identify ways to maintain or restore at least 65 per cent of every range in a suitable condition for caribou to survive and recover.
The recovery plan means that provinces and territories are left to play a leadership role and to apply the precautionary principle in caribou conservation. For ranges where more than 65 per cent of the habitat is in suitable condition, they must work to keep it that way, so that the caribou face survival odds of more than 60 per cent. Where habitat has been degraded below that level, and the caribou face extirpation (local extinction), governments must protect the best remaining habitat and start restoration programs right away.
We must all hold our governments accountable by telling them we care about caribou conservation and we expect them to act quickly. We should also make it clear to federal environment Minister Peter Kent that the government's proposal to revamp the SARA to make it more "ecosystem-based" is a ruse. The boreal woodland caribou recovery strategy is an excellent example of the fact that the SARA already allows for an ecosystem approach, as it outlines the ecosystem conditions of the boreal forest necessary to support caribou recovery. If this recovery strategy is implemented, and vast tracts of the boreal are maintained in intact condition, numerous other boreal-dependent species, and even whole food chains, will benefit.