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Environmentalists not fans of Ottawa and Queen's Park's caribou protection plans

Groups call federal environment minister's collaboration with the province a "betrayal" of a promise to protect caribou habitat
Caribou herd 2

A joint federal and provincial commitment to revive the boreal caribou population in Northern Ontario doesn’t go far enough for some conservation and environmental groups.

A news release penned by the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature, Ecojustice and the Wildlands League said the new agreement will “do more harm than good” for the threatened species which roams mostly in Ontario’s Far North. They collectively say the agreement contains no real commitments or targets to protect or restore caribou habitat.

“It ignores the negative and cumulative impacts industrial logging, road building, drilling and blasting are having that impede the recovery of caribou,” the release said.

The groups are referring to an announcement by Ottawa and Queen’s Park to commit $5 million this year and next to put plans into action with measures that combine evidence-based approaches with Indigenous traditional knowledge. The politicians say more funding is in the offing to ensure the full recovery of this species. 

Over the years, the boreal caribou has been identified by researchers and environmental groups as a canary-in-the-coal-mine species of animal that’s been threatened by human activity in greenfield areas of Ontario. Industrial development, namely forestry and mining, has been blamed for destroying these animals habitat and for their declining populations. 

The caribou is listed as a threatened species under the federal Species at Risk, Act and Ontario’s Endangered Species Act. 

According to the federal and provincial governments, the boreal caribou population in Ontario is about 5,000. The animals are found north of Sioux Lookout, Geraldton and Cochrane with an isolated herd roaming the northern shoreline of Lake Superior.

In a news release, the two levels of government are collaboratively augmenting their respective caribou conservation programs with a greater effort to restore habitat, create protected areas, monitor and report on current and projected populations, and all under the direction of independent experts, Indigenous communities and organizations, and other stakeholders. 

The two governments said this conservation strategy was devised in consultation with Indigenous communities, environmental groups and industry.

In a statement last week, federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said the “health of the boreal caribou herds reflects the health of the whole boreal forest.”

“We need to get this right,” said Guilbeault, with a “deliberate and dedicated plan of action” that will conserve and protect caribou for future generations with more conservation and more funding coming in the future.
Provincial Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister David Piccini said this “shared goal” to protect caribou and its habitat “achieves an important balance with the social and economic realities of Ontarians, industries in the North, and the broader species and ecosystems affected.”

In response, Anna Baggio, the Wildlands League’s conservation director, said Guilbeault, once the CN Tower-climbing ‘Green Jesus,’ is a disappointment, calling this agreement a “betrayal of his promise to halt and reverse nature loss.”

Rachel Plotkin, project manager for the Suzuki Foundation, accused Guilbeault of playing federal-provincial politics rather than safeguarding habitat. “The sad thing is, after all this waiting, the province is still aiding and abetting habitat destruction.”

Ecojustice lawyer Josh Ginsberg categorized the agreement as the “weakest” in Canada with no tangible measures to protect habitat nor create any. He said the agreement “fails to meet critical habitat protection obligations under the Species at Risk Act.”

Julee Boan, Ontario Nature’s boreal program manager, responded that this “shocking” agreement “greenlights more habitat destruction.”