Can the Federal Government save Canada’s Boreal woodland caribou?

May 6, 2010

This commentary by Eric Hebert-Daly, CPAWS’ National Executive Director, appeared in The Hill Times on April 26, 2010.

It’s 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity. The seven-year old federal Species At Risk Act is under review by the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment. It’s timely to ask some tough questions.

Is it realistic to expect that the federal government will be able to save Canada’s 500 plus species that have been identified as at risk of extinction? Does Canada really have what it takes to become a world leader in nature conservation?

Less than 10% of our land base and 1% of our waters are protected. Industrialization is advancing ever further north and ecosystems that we once never worried about are now a bulldozer away from being altered forever. Climate change is adding new stresses on wildlife and their habitat. The time is now for new visionary thinking and action to protect the globally important wilderness that lies within our borders.

Given our country’s constitutional structure, with environmental responsibilities shared by federal, provincial and territorial governments, what will it take for Canada to emerge as a groundbreaking trendsetter in protecting our irreplaceable wilderness?

The case of Canada’s nationally at-risk Boreal woodland caribou is an excellent test of our ability to rise to the challenge of preserving our country’s natural ecosystems. These majestic animals that are symbols of Canada’s wilderness once ranged throughout most of the country. But human activities have reduced their habitat by about half since the first Europeans landed. Today the woodland caribou is confined almost entirely to Canada’s northern Boreal forests.

Although their range is still vast, Boreal woodland caribou are listed as threatened or worse under the federal Species At Risk Act throughout the country, with the exception of the island of Newfoundland. An umbrella species signaling the health of our Boreal forests and wetlands, Boreal woodland caribou require large intact wilderness areas to survive. If their habitat is fragmented by roads, farming, logging, mining and energy development, it opens up more access to predators such as wolves, and caribou generally disappear within about 20 years.

A quick look at the last 10 years of attempts to address the plight of Boreal woodland caribou shows only too starkly that the federal government can’t go it alone on species protection. In 2000, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the entire population of Boreal woodland caribou as “threatened”. “Recovery planning” began the following year under a program with the ironic acronym of RENEW, which stood for the “Recovery of Nationally Endangered Wildlife, and continued under the Species At Risk Act after it was passed in 2003.

Many more years of study followed, as did pressure on the federal government from conservation groups including CPAWS to prepare a recovery plan based on the critical habitat needs of the species. Finally, in 2009 Environment Canada released a groundbreaking report prepared under the Species At Risk Act. The report wasn’t a recovery strategy, but it did contain an unprecedented scientific assessment of the extent of the range of habitat Boreal woodland caribou required tosurvive.

Still however, we await the release of a recovery strategy, which is now expected in 2011, following consultations with aboriginal people who have long lived in harmony with Boreal woodland caribou, and even further scientific study. Meanwhile caribou populations continue to decline.

Our learning from this process is this – the Species At Risk Act is an essential tool that enables the federal government to get involved in protecting species. But on its own, it’s insufficient. Conserving wilderness on the grand scale required by wide-ranging species such as the caribou demands concerted action by many parties who are intimately affected.

Those parties include governments at the federal, provincial, territorial and First Nations levels. They include industries like forestry, mining, and energy developers. They also include conservation groups. All of these parties need to bring their knowledge, skills and a shared commitment to sustaining our country’s natural wealth to the table.

The federal government can play a leadership role in this process. We’ve been encouraged in recent years by this government’s interest in protecting Canada’s natural heritage. Theprotection of over 100,000 km 2 of land in the Northwest Territories, including the massive expansion last year of Nahanni National Park Reserve, and other progress in establishing new national parks is a strong indication of commitment.

We’re also strongly encouraged by commitments of several provinces in the past few years to protecting large portions of their Boreal forests. In 2008, Premier McGuinty in Ontario and Premier Charest in Quebec both committed their provinces to protecting at least half of their northern Boreal landscapes. Last summer, the Alberta government opened the first door in more than a decade to new protected areas through newly announced land use planning processes.

The time is now to dedicate our collective abilities to a national effort to protect our natural heritage. That is the only way we’ll succeed in placing Canada at the forefront of nature-nurturing nations.

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