Photo: Boreal woodland caribou

Grant Caribou (Credit: wallyg via Flickr.)

A Canadian icon:

You might be carrying a caribou in your pocket. This important Canadian icon has been appearing on our 25-cent piece since 1936. That will likely be the closest you ever come to a caribou.

These shy and highly secretive animals need large forests free of roads to thrive. But the caribou are in trouble, and in some parts of this country they could be in danger of disappearing because of too much habitat disturbance in the forests where they live.

Caribou are barometers for healthy forests. If caribou aren't doing well, our forests are in trouble. We need healthy forests to help sequester carbon, regulate climate and reduce flood risks, to name a few of the ecological services they deliver. They also provide homes and resting places to hundreds of other species.

Where do caribou live?

From the Yukon, down through the northern corner of British Columbia all the way across to Newfoundland, a variety of caribou roam this country. Barren ground caribou are found in the Arctic tundra. The rare mountain caribou can be found in Canada's remote mountain ranges. Boreal woodland caribou like to hang out in the mosquito- and lichen-filled boreal forests. At one time, caribou also lived in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. But they have disappeared due to human actions such as over-hunting and habitat destruction.

Why are caribou in trouble?

Boreal woodland caribou are in trouble across Canada. At least half the caribou's range has been lost to activities that disturb and fragment their forest habitat. Caribou need intact, or undisturbed, habitat to survive. The impacts of industrial activity in the boreal — seismic lines and roads in particular — make caribou an easy target for their natural predators, wolves. Boreal woodland caribou are listed as "threatened" under the federal Species at Risk Act. This means they are threatened with extinction.

The science

In 2012, the federal government released the Boreal Woodland Caribou Recovery Strategy, as required under the Species at Risk Act. It was based on comprehensive science conducted by North America's leading caribou experts. The scientific research found a direct relationship between the total level of habitat disturbance in a caribou's range and calf survival.

This relationship is not absolute; it varies somewhat from region to region and range to range. But it provides a risk-based approach to caribou habitat management. This approach was utilized by Environment Canada as a framework from which to create management directives for provinces in the recovery strategy. The strategy directs provinces to maintain or restore a minimum of 65 per cent of each range in an undisturbed condition. This affords caribou only a 60 per cent probability of persistence.

The recovery strategy directs provinces to develop range plans for every caribou herd. These plans must detail how each province intends to manage boreal caribou habitat so that at least 65 per cent of each range is either maintained in or restored to undisturbed condition.

The way forward

Many provinces are trying to advance inadequate solutions to stop caribou from becoming extirpated (locally extinct), such as killing caribou predators (wolves and bears) or creating caribou zoos in the wild to fence out predators. These stop-gap measures further impair ecosystems and must not become the new norm.

Business-as-usual forest management has led to the decline of caribou. That has to change. Sufficient tracts of undisturbed boreal forest must be protected. Restoration initiatives are required for areas where too much habitat has already been degraded. Governments should work with profitable oil and gas and logging companies to help them understand that ensuring caribou have sufficient habitat to survive and recover is a part of doing business in every province.

Collectively, we must change our consumption habitats (by switching to recycled paper products, for example) and hold governments accountable for ensuring that wild species have the habitat they need to survive and play the ecological roles they have been playing for thousands of years.

What can you do?

1. Get involved
Hold your provincial government accountable for producing and implementing range plans that adequately support caribou habitat protection and restoration.

2. Reduce paper use
Reduce the amount of paper you use at the office and home and buy only 100 per cent post-consumer waste paper or paper that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Industrial logging is fragmenting the boreal forest, and that means caribou are being evicted from their homes. Using less paper means fewer trees are cut down. It's that simple!

3. Speak out
Speak out against harmful government policies. Say no to permanent caribou enclosures and predator control practices that enable business-as-usual industrial practices.

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