TORONTO | TRADITIONAL TERRITORY OF THE MISSISSAUGAS OF THE CREDIT, ANISHNABEG, CHIPPEWA, HAUDENSOAUNEE AND WENDAT PEOPLES — A new report by Environment and Climate Change Canada highlights a glaring lack of progress toward recovery of threatened boreal caribou in Canada, including Alberta and Ontario, since 2017.  

Under the federal Species at Risk Act, the environment minister is required to prepare a recovery strategy for species listed as endangered, threatened or extirpated, and to report on the progress of recovery strategy implementation every five years.  

The latest report summarizes progress toward boreal woodland caribou recovery from 2017 to 2023. It shows that since 2017, total habitat disturbance (the primary driver of caribou decline) has increased in 59 per cent of boreal caribou ranges across Canada. As of 2023, 30 of these ranges are still below the minimum threshold of 65 per cent undisturbed habitat that caribou need to facilitate recovery.  

The results for Canada, including Alberta and Ontario, continue to be dire.  

Only four of Alberta’s 12 populations have increased since 2017. Another six are considered stable, while two have declined. However, three of the four increasing populations rely on “intensive management” activities such as the wolf cull, which kills hundreds of wolves per year — all while Alberta drags its feet on protecting and restoring habitat.  

To date, none of Alberta’s 12 boreal caribou ranges have met the 65 per cent undisturbed habitat threshold, with some populations — such as Little Smoky — having as little as 0.7 per cent undisturbed habitat.  

“These reports are an important accountability tool and highlight the urgent need for action,” says Tara Russell, program director at Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta. “Alberta has had years to make progress, but the details of this report show that we are losing ground for caribou habitat recovery. Restoration and conservation must outpace new industrial disturbance in caribou ranges. The rate of new disturbance is a recipe for disaster.” 

While two range plans have been finalized in Alberta, the federal government notes that they have significant shortcomings.  

“The Government of Alberta needs to reconvene the sub-regional planning process as soon as possible, and it needs to ensure that future plans are stronger than what we have seen with Bistcho and Cold Lake,” says Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Phillip Meintzer. “Alberta needs to demonstrate how it plans to protect and restore enough habitat to reach the 65 per cent undisturbed threshold, rather than relying on wolf culls to keep caribou afloat.”  

The federal government noted that Ontario has failed to set a goal to maintain or achieve an explicit, range-scale minimum threshold of undisturbed habitat and does not have restoration strategies. A recent progress update between the province and the federal government reveals a failure to implement habitat protection measures on the ground.  

“Ontario is still reporting on process rather than range plan implementation, habitat protection or habitat restoration,” said Rachel Plotkin of the David Suzuki Foundation. “Caribou need on-the-ground recovery measures immediately—they cannot wait while we plan to plan.” 

The progress report shows that, since 2017, provinces are not doing enough to protect and recover the habitat needed to achieve caribou recovery. But they aren’t the only ones to blame. The recovery of SARA-listed species is the responsibility of the federal government too, and Environment and Climate Change Canada needs to hold the provinces accountable to their commitments to conserve at-risk caribou.  

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  • Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) were first listed as threatened under Schedule 1 of Canada’s Species at Risk Act in 2003. The purpose of SARA is to prevent wildlife species from becoming extinct or extirpated, and to help in the recovery of extirpated, endangered or threatened species. 
  • According to the boreal caribou recovery strategy, released in 2012, caribou range plans should have been completed by the Government of Alberta by no later than 2017. However, as of May 2024, only two range plans have been finalized under Alberta’s Bistcho Lake and Cold Lake sub-regional plans. No range plans have been published for Ontario; rather, the federal government is allowing Ontario to claim “alternate plans” based on out-of-date policies. 
  • The recent federal progress report reviews the two Alberta sub-regional plans and highlights many of their deficiencies. Bistcho Lake and Cold Lake do not anticipate an increase in undisturbed habitat for another 80 and 50 years respectively, and neither range plan includes information on areas that are being prioritized for restoration. 
  • What’s even more worrisome is that neither range plan includes projections for the potential impact of wildfire on caribou habitat, when recent data show that in 2023 alone, 12.7 per cent of preferred caribou habitat in the Bistcho range was lost due to wildfires. As wildfires are likely to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change, their potential impacts need to be considered in the development and implementation of range plans if they are going to be successful.