Boreal caribou herds dying off: Report
A federal report reads that half of Canada’s boreal caribou herds are in decline and could die off this century unless their habitat is better protected.
Photograph by: Wayne Sawchuk, Northern Images
Half of Canada’s boreal caribou herds are in decline and could die off unless their habitat is better protected, says a federal report that points to logging and energy production as big threats to the reclusive creatures.
Environment Canada released the long-awaited report Thursday, more than six months after it was finalized by scientists. And the Conservative government took the extraordinary step of distancing itself from the report by slapping a preface on the 254-page document saying it is not detailed enough.
“The information provided is inadequate to enable the identification of critical habitat,” says the one-page preface, which has left many incredulous.
Scientists and conservation groups say the report is the most comprehensive ever on the caribou that live in Canada’s northern forests. And they say it points to habitats that need immediate protection.
“We stand behind the report and we think there is a wealth of very useful information in the report that can be put in place for caribou conservation now,” says biologist Fiona Schmiegelow, of the University of Alberta, who chaired the group of 18 experts that advised the Environment Canada team that wrote the report.
She says the advisory group is “surprised” and “disappointed” by the tone of the government’s preface, and stresses the need for action.
“The report provides some clear signals about where we need to really get going with things,” Schmiegelow said in an interview with Canwest News Service.
Conservation groups go even further saying the report shows the boreal caribou are in more trouble than previously realized, and action cannot wait for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to do more studies and consultation. The preface says the government is now aiming to release a “recovery strategy” in 2011.
“We are calling for an immediate pause to logging and new development activity in critical caribou habitat,” says Aran O’Carroll, a national manager with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
The study concludes 29 of the 57 remaining herds of boreal caribou are not self-sustaining. Several are at risk in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, where logging, mining and energy development has been booming in the last decade.
“The inherent risks associated with a small population size warrant a cautious approach when considering potential resilience to any additional disturbance,” says the report, that details the health of the different herds. There are as few as 24 and 40 animals left in the some herds, while others have hundreds of animals.
Woodland boreal caribou are a distinct species from the caribou found in British Columbia and the migratory caribou that travel in huge herds across the northern tundra.
Unlike its migratory cousins, the boreal caribou are elusive and seldom seen. “Their survival technique is to essentially hide in the forest from predators,” says O’Carroll.
They have already vanished from the Maritimes, southern Quebec and Ontario, and are increasingly threatened in the northern boreal, where an estimated 36,000 of the caribou still live. The herds are scattered from Labrador across northern Quebec and Ontario all the way to Alberta and the southern tip of the Yukon.
“Woodland caribou won’t survive a business-as-usual approach,” says Larry Innes, executive director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, which is pushing for protection of half of Canada’s boreal forest.
“Woodland caribou are a primary indicator of healthy, intact boreal forest, and they have disappeared from large areas of their former range as a consequence of decisions we’ve made.”
Environment Canada says it isn’t trying to bury the troublesome news about the caribou by posting it on the government website the day before the Easter weekend.
And the department says the preface was added “to ensure clarity” on what information the review provides and what information is outstanding to be able to move forward under Species at Risk Act, says Environment Canada media officer Sujata Raisinghani, who was fielding questions for the department Thursday.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice was not available for comment.
“Discussions on the immediate impact on industrial activities would be speculative at this time,” Raisinghani said via e-mail. “The department is targeting completion of the recovery strategy by 2011.”