The woodland caribou is becoming as controversial as it is elusive since provincial conservation plans for the species may result in drastic reductions of wood supply in the Abitibi River Forest.
Those conservation plans are threatening the livelihood of those who depend on the forest and northeastern Ontario mayors fear their communities will be devastated in the next three decades.
Cochrane Mayor Peter Politis, who has worked in the area in the forest industry, said he has only seen one caribou, which was 150 kilometres north of town.
“If there are caribou in this part of the country, there are only one or two and (they are) just stragglers,” he said.
The mayors and other organizations want the government to focus its conservation efforts in areas where the caribou are known to exist.
The draft long-term management direction (LTMD) of the Abitibi River Forest calls for an immediate 25 per cent reduction in sustainable timber volume available to industry and a 65 per cent reduction in less than 30 years. The forest is 3.5 million hectares and takes in communities such as Iroquois Falls, Timmins, Cochrane.
While the LTMD includes all aspects of forest management, the new requirement to meet the Endangered Species Act and the caribou conservation plan requirements set by the province has compelled the planning team of Abitibi River Forest Management Inc. to follow them.
Woodland caribou were classified as threatened in Canada in 2002 by the Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and similarly designated under the provincial Endangered Species Act.
“The mayors' concern of reduction in wood supply is real,” said Paul Fantin, forest program manager with Abitibi River Forest Management. “There is a reduction, primarily due to the implementation of the caribou management requirements.”
The trend in reduction of wood supply has been documented earlier but it was marginal, he said.
“Once you start to apply the caribou requirements, what happens is that downward trend is exasperated.
“It is serious, absolutely serious, and the mayors are justifiably concerned about some of the information they have seen so far and the planning team needs to consider that.”
The direction is currently in draft form, he said, and has undergone a 30-day review where the public could comment. The planning team must consider the feedback and can come up with a revised version of the direction or keep the original one.
Earlier this fall, the mayors of Timmins, Cochrane, Iroquois Falls, Matheson, Kapuskasing and Hearst issued a joint press release voicing their concerns about the forest plan.
“The province's new Caribou Conservation Policy appears to be a politically motivated attempt to satisfy environmental extremists who live thousands of kilometres away from our region,” the release stated. “Remarkably, it trades off the lives of every Northerner and the very existence of most communities of Northern Ontario to accomplish a radical and imbalanced objective.”
The mayors contend that the caribou policy and the resultant impacts associated with it are not based on sound science nor reasoning. There has also not been any socio-economic impact assessments undertaken to ensure the decisions being made are “informed and responsible.”
The U.S.-based Pew Environment Group released a report last summer, “Keeping Woodland Caribou in the Boreal Forest,” which advocated a stop to development in the North.
“In short, to conserve woodland caribou means dispensing with business as usual, which has demonstrably and repeatedly failed to meet caribou conservation needs,” the report said. “Society must broaden its perspective to match the scales of caribou biology and ecology.”
The Ontario Forest Industries Association, in a public letter addressed to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), suggests moving the so-called 'caribou line' further north “where research shows caribou actually live.”
That's a sentiment echoed by Iroquois Falls Mayor Gilles Forget who said the province is using Highway 11, from Matheson to Hearst, as a 'caribou line.'
“The government is asking us to manage for caribou in areas that are not appropriate,” he said in the release. “The 'caribou line' needs to be moved further north to an area that is supported by science.”
Politis cites pressure by extreme environmental groups as making the public believe the caribou will be completely extinct because of the impact “our way of life is having on them.
“The forests in this area are world renowned and certified with the leading environmental agencies in the world associated with protecting species like caribou so that has to be put into perspective.
“The other perspective, is that 90 per cent of the provincial landmass that exists north of Highway 17 has only seven per cent of the population. We are talking 800,000 square miles and how intrusive are we, really?” Politis said.
The area's inhabitants are also part of the ecosystem, as are the caribou, and they have been good at managing the forest since their livelihood depends on it, he said.
“We are, if not more at risk, of being endangered than the species these people are talking about, but you don't see our names on this list. They think it is the sacrifice that has to be made . . . and we are going to have to change our societal expectations, meaning of course, sacrificing people to make sure caribou don't fall off.”
The polarizing of the issue, with those either against the conservation policy or for it, pits environmentalists against “big, bad industry,” Politis said, but there are solutions where both can survive.
Resolute Forest Products (formerly AbitibiBowater) President and CEO Richard Garneau said in a press release “we should not have to make a choice between protecting caribou and protecting Northern jobs.”
Environmental considerations and economic outcomes are not mutually exclusive, he said, and sustainable forest management must recognize all three pillars – economic, social and environmental.
The company also agrees in moving the 'caribou line' further north and focusing on areas where their presence is not in dispute.
For Timmins sawmill operator John Kapel, the conservation plan will have catastrophic results for all commercial operations that depend on wood supply.
“What is forgotten in this whole mess is that the North built the south,” he said. “It has the potential to wipe out entire communities. Will it affect mining as well? It is like saying we are going to shut down the oil industry in Alberta because of the buffalo.”
Kapel said one of the main threats to the caribou is the black bear, which is known to target calves.
“If they bring back the spring bear hunt the caribou would be in better shape,” he said.
Politis is concerned that the science the MNR policy is based on has not gone through an objective peer science review. According to Environment Canada, the woodland caribou in the Boreal Forest is still one of the least studied of caribou populations in Canada.
“As Northerners, we aren't saying anything along the lines that caribou don't need to be protected or they don't need our assistance. On the contrary, we recognize we need to keep our ecosystem in balance because we are part of that system.
“What we are saying is that this is not a situation where it is so extreme, you have to start sacrificing livelihoods and families in the process without even asking them if they want to be part of that,” Politis said.
Although the province has not conducted any socio-economic impact studies regarding the caribou conservation plan, the Ontario Forest Industries Association has. The March 2010 study, based on government assumptions and positions, showed the then-proposed regulation would remove up to a third of Northern Ontario's industrial fibre supply, result in the loss of thousands of jobs and threaten the survival of several Northern communities.
Politis said the North has to become better at lobbying policy makers and someone at Queen's Park has to recognize there is a disconnect between the province and the MNR.
“Can we maximize the conservation of caribou without sacrificing people's lives in the process? I am saying we can because the industry is saying there are all kinds of solutions on the table that have been ignored,” Politis said. “(The province) has to sit down with the municipalities and industry to find the right solutions.”
The mayors pointed out in their press release that Northerners are natural conservationists who not only care for caribou, but for the entire ecosystem.
“We have survived in harmony with the forest around us for 100 years and become deeply concerned when our very existence is being threatened with extinction to satisfy narrow and ill-conceived interests,” they said.