What will it take to protect Ontario’s caribou?

With the population declining, First Nations, environmentalists, and others are working together to safeguard boreal caribou — and their habitat — before it’s too late
By Amy van den Berg - Published on Aug 05, 2021
The boreal caribou is considered a threatened species in Ontario. (iStock/mirceax)

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The forestry sector calls it the Abitibi River Forest: more than 3 million hectares of land near Cochrane that extend to just south of James Bay and hug the Ontario-Quebec border. It is dominated by towering stands of black and white spruce, scraggy jack pine, and tamarack that turn golden yellow in the fall. It is also home to the North French watershed, one of the last sources of clean drinking water left in this part of the province. 

Nearly a decade ago, 492 boreal caribou roamed the area, which forms part of the Kesagami range. Even then, though, the population was classified as “not self-sustaining,”  as its habitat — caribou need large and undisturbed swathes of old coniferous forest or peatland to survive — had been disturbed by both natural and human forces. While it’s unclear how many remain, experts believe their numbers continue to shrink, and the species is considered threatened in the province. 

Enter the Made in the North Caribou Plan, also known as the Cochrane Plan. It was devised eight years ago by a group made up of environmentalists, forestry representatives, and First Nations. It brings together local communities and, more recently, the province’s forest-management planning team to protect the health of woodland caribou — and prevent further degradation of their habitat. If the collaboration succeeds, experts say, its cross-sector approach could act as a blueprint for similar efforts across the country. But, they warn, it won’t be easy: the project is unfolding against a backdrop of environmental deregulation that could hinder conservation efforts.  

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closeup of a caribou
Caribou in North America have lost more than half of their historic range. (Ted Simonett, Wildlands League)

Caribou herds, which live in areas of the boreal forest stretching from Labrador to Yukon, are in peril across the country. “Basically, almost every boreal caribou population that lives in managed forests in Canada is in decline,” says Julee Boan, a Thunder Bay-based boreal-program manager at Ontario Nature, a registered charity dedicated to conservation. While human activity is the most significant cause of habitat loss, forest fires have also damaged caribou ranges across the province’s north. To date, caribou in North America have lost more than half of their historic range.

Joe Bennett, an associate professor at Carleton University who specializes in conservation and threatened species, says that “Canadians have often taken for granted that we have this supposed wilderness and that we're a nation of forests. The reality is that we have disturbed our boreal forests quite a lot, especially in certain areas, and this has led to threats to species such as boreal caribou.”

Threats include industrial-resource-extraction activities — such as logging, mining, and those related to oil and gas — and hydroelectricity. These industries cut roads through the forest, opening the landscape to larger numbers of moose and deer and therefore also to more predators, such as wolves and bears. Climate change, too, plays a part. It’s causing white-tailed deer to move northward: they help boost the wolf population and can carry the brainworm parasite, which is lethal to caribou. 

In 2008, Ontario developed a recovery strategy and habitat-guidance documents for caribou that include a range-management approach to evaluating disturbances: this involves working to support caribou habitat health — for example, by not harvesting in areas where a certain percentage of a range has already been affected. Provincial forestry guidelines are aimed at minimizing the harm to caribou and their habitat and include renaturalizing logging roads and avoiding calving areas. 

The federal government in 2012 produced a recovery strategy that labelled 37 of 51 caribou populations in Canada not self-sustaining. There has not, though, been continuous monitoring since — which makes understanding Ontario’s situation difficult. “Caribou are very difficult and expensive to survey,” says Justina Ray, president and senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. “And in order to know how caribou are doing, you have to take good looks at their population on a regular basis.” 

The Cochrane Plan was formed in 2013 to fill the void. It is co-led by Wildlands League, a non-profit environmental organization; Rayonier Advanced Materials Lumber, which operates a local sawmill;  Taykwa Tagamou and Moose Cree First Nations; and Cochrane itself. Moose Cree is working with the federal government to establish an Indigenous protected area in the North French watershed, in part to conserve caribou habitat. 

“When you come to the table and you're collaborative, you can solve these things,” says Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for Wildlands League. “It's a good mindset.” 

The partnership was the first of its kind in Ontario and one of only a handful of similar joint efforts across Canada. 

Because caribou are found in the northern section of the Abitibi River Forest planning area, the members proposed a system of zoned logging that sets aside 800,000 hectares of caribou habitat and leaves 2.2 million hectares for varying levels of forestry. Put simply: harvest more trees along the area’s southern region, harvest moderately in the middle, and leave the northern edge of the forest alone.

“Part of our thinking is that we can't restore the southern part of that range, because it's so heavily developed, so let's not make the range worse by moving development to the far northern part,” says Baggio. 

 group of people standing next to a large photo of a caribou
Members of the Cochrane Plan work to raise awareness of the need to protect the region’s critical caribou habitat. (Courtesy of Wildlands League)

Last December, the province’s forest-management-planning team agreed, after consultation with the Cochrane Plan, not to place cut blocks — areas authorized for harvesting — in the northern section of the caribou range for at least the next 20 years. “It's not perfect,” says Baggio. “But it buys us critical time to put in place a long-term plan.”

Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, passed in 2007, was once considered the strongest such legislation in Canada. Under the ESA, the habitat of any species classified as endangered or threatened would receive automatic legal protection. “It was a very strong act, but it's been weakened over the years in various ways,” says Ray. 

In 2013, the province temporarily exempted forestry from certain provisions of the act, arguing that an approved forest-management plan accomplishes the same goals through the Crown Forest Sustainability Act. This past winter, the Ford government made the exemption permanent. “Now it's pretty much official,” says Ray. “The ESA doesn't touch anything to do with forestry anymore when it comes to species at risk.”

In an email to TVO.org, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry says, “Forest management plans are developed using a planning manual regulated under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act (CFSA). The FMPM requires the application of MNRF’s approved forest management guides to provide for protection to values, including species at risk.”

But advocates say the guidelines under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act are not comparable to those in the Endangered Species Act. “The purpose of the two acts is distinctly different,” says Boan. While the CFSA’s rules for forestry attempt to minimize logging’s impact on the habitat of species at risk, the ESA aims to help populations recover. “Recovery is the key aspect.”

Advocates have also criticized the government’s changes to environmental-assessment and public-consultation processes. And, while the province indicated in its “Forest Sector Strategy,” launched in August 2020, that the current volume of timber harvested is less than 60 per cent of what it was in 2000, that same strategy suggests doubling the amount of logging on Crown land by 2030. “Combined, they've created an environment of deregulation,” says Boan. “And it's going to put caribou at more risk.” 

“We're not going to be able to get a lot of this habitat back for caribou — this is just not possible,” says Baggio, from Wildlands League. The organization is calling for a halt on the expansion of the industrial footprint in caribou habitat that have already experienced 35 per cent disturbance. 

The Cochrane Plan also wants the province to step in and permanently protect the caribou habitat within the Abitibi River Forest. “What's been happening locally so far, I think that's a good sign,” Baggio says. “What we'd like [Ontario] to do is go one step further and really try and figure out a way to come up with a long-term strategy so that the forest companies will know where to go to operate.”

In the meantime, the group is urging other companies to avoid the area: it’s still open to other activities, such as mineral and gas exploration. And many caribou populations move between ranges; although the federal Species at Risk Act encourages provinces and territories to implement range plans to ensure critical habitat remains 65 per cent undisturbed, Ontario has not yet done so.

Experts say, though, that such voluntary initiatives will not be enough for Ontario’s caribou. “It's important to have [them], like what's happening in the northeast,” says Boan. “But that's not happening everywhere. And more deregulation isn't going to help.” 

Despite the roadblocks, Baggio is heartened by how many people are taking up the cause: “It just takes more political will, more ambition, and more leadership.” 

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