Instead of implementing caribou recovery plans, the Ontario government has allowed logging and logging roads to continue to expand into unfragmented forests, causing critical caribou habitat to be lost. Scientists have warned that delays in addressing industrial expansion will result in a lower likelihood of recovery.
By Rachel Plotkin and Tim Gray
Boreal woodland caribou have been scientifically assessed as threatened with extinction across Canada. Of 51 populations of boreal woodland caribou recognized in the federal recovery strategy, 37 were shown to be declining. They need large, intact swathes of boreal forest to survive, and that habitat is disappearing.
In Ontario, a major driver of their decline is industrial logging and logging roads, which fragment their habitat and alter predator-prey dynamics by giving wolves new and effective ways to hunt them.
More than five years ago, under the federal Species at Risk Act, the Canadian government appointed a blue-ribbon panel of scientists to identify the habitat caribou need to survive and recover. These scientists discovered a relationship between the amount of disturbance in a caribou range and whether a population increased or declined.
Below a certain level of usable habitat, caribou populations begin to wane. Using this analysis, the federal government directed provinces to complete caribou range plans to maintain or restore the habitat boreal caribou need to survive. The provinces and territories were given five years from the Oct. 5, 2012, release of the federal recovery strategy, but failed to produce range plans.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is responsible for preparing these plans and overseeing species at risk protection and recovery.
Not only did the provincial ministry miss the federal deadline for caribou range plans, it spent the last decade kowtowing to industrial lobbying at the expense of caribou recovery.
Under the ministry’s watch, the logging industry was granted a five-year exemption from Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, the provincial law designed to ensure human activities do not harm a species or destroy its habitat. Instead of implementing caribou recovery plans, the government has allowed logging and logging roads to continue to expand into unfragmented forests, causing critical caribou habitat to be lost. Scientists have warned that delays in addressing industrial expansion will result in a lower likelihood of recovery.
When the Oct. 5 deadline came and went without so much as a boo from Ontario, an unnamed ministry spokesperson had this to say: The “ministry has been exploring possible solutions that protect species-at-risk and their habitat, minimize impacts on forest operations and wood supply, and provide economic opportunities for communities in Northern Ontario.”
The ministry’s interest in minimizing impacts on industry is likely because logging levels in the province have declined by approximately 40 per cent since their early-2000s peak. The internet and a disappearing newspaper industry mean fewer pulp and paper mills are operating.
Declining logging levels should be seen as an opportunity for solutions that allow caribou and logging to coexist, instead of the foot-dragging we’ve seen from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
Scientists know what is needed to manage boreal woodland caribou habitat to advance their recovery. Innovative ways to manage forests for both caribou conservation and a healthy economy have been proposed in the province. But the only way caribou will survive is if their needs are addressed at the same time as logging plans.
The failure of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to produce and release caribou range plans as required by the federal government is more than just an embarrassment; it’s an abrogation of its responsibility to Ontarians to set limits to the continual expansion of the industrial footprint in the boreal forest and to steward the boreal so that it continues to support abundant wildlife populations.
It is time for somebody else to manage the endangered species in our forests. Clearly the “Ministry of Wood” can’t or won’t.
This op-ed was originally published in the Toronto Star. Tim Gray is the executive director of Environmental Defence.