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Northwest meeting shows challenges on caribou protections

A provincial workshop on caribou conservation generates debate from regional stakeholders

A provincial workshop held in Thunder Bay this week illuminated a challenging road ahead in reaching an agreement on adequate protections for the threatened boreal caribou.

The issue has wide implications not just for the future of the caribou, but for forestry, mining, and hunting in Northern Ontario.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault warned earlier this year Ontario is not effectively protecting some boreal caribou habitat, pointing to exemptions under Ontario's Endangered Species Act allowing mining exploration, for example.

Guilbeault said he was required under the Species At Risk Act to recommend a habitat protection order, but the feds gave Ontario until April 2024 to present a plan showing that's not needed.

Just how far a protection order would go in limiting activities like resource extraction isn’t clear, but Ontario politicians and industry players responded with alarm, saying it could devastate mining and forestry in the North.

That issue loomed over a workshop organized in Thunder Bay this week by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to discuss a way forward.

Dougall Media reporters were not allowed to observe the workshop, but spoke with several participants, who described it as a productive, but sometimes tense, conversation between researchers, environmental advocates, political leaders, and industry players with competing values and priorities.

Marathon Mayor Rick Dumas, representing the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) at the meeting, said northerners are sensitive to environmental pronouncements from outsiders.

“When you [have] people from the south telling people in the north how we're going to protect your lands, we get our backs up,” he said.

“We're the real environmentalists — we’re the real protectors of the land, because we live here. We want to make sure our landscape and our future for our children and grandchildren are sustainable, but we want to do it in a practical, common-sense way.”

The woodland caribou are listed as threatened both provincially and federally. Researchers estimate there are roughly 5,000 left in Ontario.

The population was once widespread north of Lakes Huron and Superior, but human settlement largely shrunk its range to areas north of Sioux Lookout, Geraldton, and Cochrane, along with some isolated populations along the Lake Superior shoreline and islands.

The province and feds agreed to collaborate on protecting woodland caribou last year.

The agreement generated pushback, with environmental groups charging it ran counter to the Species at Risk Act by prioritizing economic considerations.

Northern Ontario municipalities, by contrast, called the agreement too aggressive, saying it could stifle mining and forestry they depend on.

“We all want to protect the species at risk… but the reality is we also have to protect the species at risk which is us, the humans that live on the landscape,” said Dumas.

Because caribou have virtually disappeared in areas along Lake Superior in the “discontinuous zone,” Dumas argues the province should focus conservation efforts further north, where they’ll also impact industry less.

“We live in the backyard, and I’ve said through this session, there is no caribou on the mainland in the discontinuous zone,” he said. “If there’s no caribou, why are we having impacts? Why don't we focus on areas where the caribou will thrive?”

John Kaplanis, executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Sportsman's Alliance, agrees.

"If we're going to buy into the climate change theory, it dictates the caribou range is going to get pushed north," he said. "If that happens — and it is happening, apparently — then much of what we're doing in the southern range is all for nothing."

"There's not much in the short term we think is worthwhile to do, especially if it impacts our communities so dramatically."

John Fryxell, a biology professor who leads the Fryxell Lab at the University of Guelph, expressed some understanding for that argument.

“My personal feeling is recognizing that some sites are going to be very difficult to recover might be a reasonable assertion, if it's balanced with increased efforts in other locations where we're perhaps not dug into such a deep hole,” he said.

Rob Rempel, a retired Ministry of Natural Resources wildlife ecologist who now heads FERIT Environmental Consulting Services, agreed restoring caribou populations further south is a tall order.

“There's a lot of logging and other activity going on there, [and] to re-establish care would require a large, large intervention,” he said. “In other areas… the interventions might be a lot less to have a very positive impact on caribou.”

“That's really not a science question, in a way,” he added. “It's a decision society and its decision-makers must make: where do we put our effort?”

Kaplanis said hunters also worry about how conservation efforts will impact species like moose, wolves, and black bears, who he said have been made “scapegoats” for caribou decline.

“The big concern has been how it relates to moose management,” he said. “Our position is moose in the continuous caribou range are already at very low densities.”

Researchers say evidence has clearly established competition with moose and wolves is a major factor in caribou decline, but add that’s largely driven by resource extraction — and now exacerbated by climate change.

The combination of a warming north and forestry that replaces older growth forests, friendly to caribou, with new growth more amenable to moose, is increasing moose populations and shifting them north, Rempel said.

That in turn fuels an increase in the wolf population, which has increased predation on caribou.

He added features like logging roads, while small on the landscape, can have a big impact. Wolves use the pathways to travel large distances more quickly while hunting, giving them an advantage.

Fryxell called strategies like closing off old logging roads one solution, though even that comes with trade-offs.

“Those access routes are something people love — it lets us have recreational opportunities, but at the same time it makes it much easier for wolves to have a very high impact,” he said.

Rempel acknowledged tension between conservation and economic interests.

“I think that definitely complicates efforts,” he said. “The best science-based approach might be that we should stop all logging… but that’s not a reality, because people are important too, communities and economies are important.”

Daniel Fortin, a Laval University biology professor, said the workshop aimed to identify strategies that balance the two.

Some potential actions include habitat restoration, eliminating vegetation preferred by moose to reduce the moose and wolf populations, and leaving larger patches of forest untouched during logging.

Fortin pointed to a federal Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou that suggests leaving a minimum of 65 per cent of caribou habitat undisturbed.

NOMA has argued following the standard could devastate the region’s economy.

Fortin said the correlation has been strongly established by research, however.

“If you log over 35 per cent, on average, you could expect your population has probably a 40 per cent chance to decrease,” he said. “If you log at 40 per cent, it's probably a 50 per cent chance.”

While deep divisions remain on some issues, workshop participants expressed optimism.

“I hope this meeting we've had, as painful as it can be to confront these facts, is the first [step] to try to come to grips with that,” said Fryxell. “We have a lot of sharp dialogue for sure, but at the end of the day, I think we all have a common vision of the kind of northern landscape we'd like to leave for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”