Canadian Environment Ministers Must Protect Caribou Habitat

  • Published on Feb 21 2017 |
  • This article is tagged as:




February 20, 2017


TORONTO — Conservation groups are calling on federal, provincial and territorial environment ministers to act quickly to recover Caimperilederilled woodland caribou herds through habitat measures. The call comes in advance of the environment ministers’ meeting in Ottawa February 21 to 22.

It has been almost five years since the federal government released the boreal woodland caribou recovery strategy under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). The strategy developed a threshold of risk for managing caribou, and guides provinces to maintain or restore each caribou range so that at least 65 per cent of it is undisturbed, as caribou need undisturbed habitat to avoid predators and survive. The recovery strategy calls for range plans to be completed by October 2017that demonstrate the protection, maintenance and restoration of caribou habitat for each caribou herd.

Yet, across Canada, industrial activities such as mining, oil and gas and logging continue to disturb critical caribou habitat. For example, even though the habitat of west central Alberta’s Little Smoky range is over 95 per cent disturbed, the province released a draft range plan that allows new logging and oil and gas surface disturbance. In Ontario and Quebec, logging continues to degrade intact caribou habitat.

A recent article in Biological Conservation concluded that Canada will likely lose more than half its woodland caribou populations within a few decades unless habitat conservation measures are improved— especially in Western Canada where energy industry activity is heavy.

“Clear science exists to guide caribou recovery, yet we continue to see provinces allowing habitat destruction while engaging in band-aid solutions such as predator control and zoo-like enclosures,” said Rachel Plotkin of the David Suzuki Foundation “If we are to have wild caribou in the future, habitat protection and restoration need to be kicked to the top of the action list.”

Conservation groups believe the economy can work for both caribou and industry. Tenure and lease systems can be realigned to reduce pressure on critical caribou habitat, some activities can be confined to existing disturbed areas, and restoration initiatives can be implemented in areas where habitat has already exceeded disturbance thresholds.

Protection and restoration of caribou habitat will have impacts beyond caribou recovery; the boreal forest on which caribou depend stores significant carbon and provides homes and resting places for hundreds of other species, such as migratory birds.

“To uphold our wildlife laws and commitments, provinces need to enforce limits on surface disturbance within caribou ranges,” said Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell. “They also need to follow important protected-areas promises with actions.”

“Protecting caribou is synonymous with a healthy Boreal forest. We have the knowledge and capacity to be good stewards - we can protect our wildlife and have sustainable forest industries, too," said Greenpeace forest campaigner, Olivier Kolmel. "The government must act now, because soon it will simply be too late.”


Carolyn Campbell, Alberta Wilderness Association: 403 921-9519.
Rachel Plotkin, David Suzuki Foundation: 416 799-8435
Manon Dubois (French): 514 679-0821



Urgent need for Canadian environment ministers to protect caribou habitat

February 20, 2017

In 2007, Environment Canada, tasked with developing a national recovery strategy for boreal woodland caribou under the federal Species at Risk Act, commissioned a team of North America’s leading caribou experts to review the science necessary to determine the habitat boreal caribou need to survive/recover — called critical habitat. These scientists conducted meta-analyses of all boreal woodland caribou science in Canada, and researched and refined current provincial, national and territorial data sets, first releasing Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population in 2008, with a second phase in 2011.1

The Environment Canada team consulted with more than 100 First Nation communities across Canada’s boreal, and incorporated traditional knowledge into the final recovery strategy, which they released in 2012.2

The recovery strategy notes that: the disturbance management threshold of at least 65 per cent undisturbed habitat in a range provides a measurable probability (60 per cent) for a local population to be self-sustaining. This threshold is considered a minimum because, at 65 per cent undisturbed habitat, there remains a significant risk (40 per cent) that local populations will not be self-sustaining.3

Further, it directs that: “In ranges with less than 65% undisturbed habitat, initially, critical habitat is the existing habitat that over time would contribute to the attainment of 65% undisturbed habitat.”4

Below are examples from Ontario and Alberta that illustrate how the provinces’ management of caribou habitat is inconsistent with the direction outlined by the federal government.


In Ontario, disturbance has increased in every southern range in which industrial logging occurs, pushing some populations, such as the Brightsand Range caribou, from a persistence rating of “uncertain” in 2012 to “unlikely to survive” now.

The Ontario government operates according to a “mosaic approach” that moves cut blocks across the landscape without regard to the total cumulative disturbance in a given caribou range.

In recent years, the potential of provincial measures to protect species at risk has eroded, as the Endangered Species Act has been weakened through amendments that exempt industries such as logging companies from having to comply with the prohibitions against habitat destruction, as long as generic terms and conditions are met. Ontario has put no specific limit on disturbance in caribou ranges in accordance with the risk analysis of disturbance in the federal recovery strategy.


Habitat disturbance in the west-central Alberta Little Smoky boreal caribou range was rated at 95 per cent in 2011, the highest in Canada. Since late 2005, the Alberta government has killed approximately 100 wolves each winter to reduce caribou predation, but continues to authorize habitat destruction that drives wolf predation of caribou. Alberta has released only one boreal caribou draft range plan to date, covering Little Smoky and the neighbouring A La Peche mountain caribou range. The draft plan would allow critical habitat destruction in the ranges from continued clearcut logging and oil and gas-related surface disturbance. It proposes more wildlife manipulation, including building a large fence to confine wild caribou females, with their calves released as yearlings into worsening habitat. Alberta has less than two per cent of its foothills region in protected areas, yet there are no protected areas proposed for the Little Smoky range. Positive aspects of the draft plan are an extensive seismic line restoration program, and clustering of the excessive new logging near already-disturbed areas for five years.

The Cold Lake northeast Alberta caribou range largely overlaps with federal leased lands of the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. It also overlaps with oilsands deposits that are drilled and steamed to extract bitumen. The 2011 habitat disturbance rating for the range was 85 per cent, and calf survival in this population has been low in recent years. There are no industrial disturbance limits within this caribou range; between 2012 and 2014, 3,847 wells were drilled within the Cold Lake range, according to recent research5. In the early 2000s, Saskatchewan protected large sections of its side of the CLAWR in wildlife reserves compatible with military use. Alberta’s northeast regional land use plan set aside only five per cent of the Alberta Cold Lake caribou range in protected area, none of it on the CLAWR.

The Bistcho caribou range, in Alberta’s far northwest adjacent to B.C. and Northwest Territories, was rated at 71 per cent habitat disturbance in 2011. Since the 2012 federal caribou recovery strategy, the Alberta government auctioned off 1,500 square kilometres of energy leases in this range before halting sales in August 2015. There are no industrial disturbance limits or protected areas within this caribou range. In June 2016, the Alberta government committed to establish a permanent protected area covering 87,000 square kilometres, or 60 per cent of this range; however, there have been few follow-up actions to date.


1Environment Canada. 2008. Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Boreal Woodland
2Environment Canada. 2012. Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal
population, in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Environment Canada, Ottawa.
3Ibid., p. 34
4Ibid., p. 35
5Hebblewhite, Mark. 2017. Billion dollar boreal woodland caribou and the biodiversity impacts of the global oil
and gas industry. Biological Conservation 206:102-111.