Environment Canada puts off action to protect woodland-caribou

April 13, 2009

Environment Canada assembled some of the world’s top woodland-caribou scientists for advice on the habitat needed to save the threatened animals, and then it rejected their suggestions.

The scientists’ conclusions, released in a report last week, say that development should be tightly controlled in about half the northern boreal forest, to give caribou a better shot at long-term survival. The report also estimated that 30 of Canada’s 57 woodland-caribou populations have shrunk to such low levels they are probably no longer self-sustaining.

In response, Environment Canada added an unsigned preface, or qualifier, to the report, saying the scientists didn’t provide enough information on how much caribou habitat can be disturbed through development to still maintain sustainable herds. The department said it will study the issue until December, 2010, effectively putting off for several years any formal plans to protect the species.

The government’s response “is unprecedented in my knowledge,” said Aran O’Carroll, a spokesman for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, an Ottawa-based conservation group that has been lobbying for a caribou-protection plan.

The preface “implies that the science report is inadequate,” Mr. O’Carroll said, but he reviewed it and said the 254-page document that was two years in the making is “probably the most significant study of critical habitat for any species in Canada.”

Caribou-habitat preservation is a politically contentious topic because much of the land that is most suitable for the animals is also under acute pressure for logging, mining, and oil and gas development. Many of the areas of caribou habitat identified in the report as being most at risk are in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Many conservationists contend that if the species is to survive, much of the boreal forest left in Canada will have to be made off-limits to most development. There are an estimated 36,000 woodland caribou left in Canada and the species has been designated as threatened by the federal government.

Caribou need large, intact wilderness areas to have viable populations. Logging and oil exploration destroy the old-growth forests that contain the lichens on which caribou feed. Road development allows the easy spread of their main predator, wolves.

Fiona Schmiegelow, an adjunct professor of renewable resources at the University of Alberta and chair of the expert group of scientists who oversaw the writing of the report, said in an interview that many of Canada’s caribou populations are dwindling. “They’re going downhill and they’re going downhill fast.”

She said the group’s report was completed and ready for release last August. She said she wasn’t told why Environment Canada later added the preface.


A species’ survival

A study has found development in the northern boreal forest needs to be controlled

Caribou facts

– Caribou and reindeer are the same animal – Rangifer tarandus

– most females, as well as males, carry antlers

– its name probably derives from the Mi’kmaq word “xalibu,” meaning “the one who paws”

Action needed for the boreal woodland caribou’s survival

– Maintain habitat

– Improve habitat

– Disturbance possible

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