Conserving woodland caribou: the benchmark for Northern sustainability

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Woodland caribou have been described as epitomizing the “hard-to-perceive, slow-motion crisis” that faces many wildlife species. They rely on intact forests, are very intolerant of disturbances caused by modern resource development, and are extremely sensitive to the alteration of ecological processes, such as changes to natural forest fire cycles or increased pressure from other species. As a result, populations of woodland caribou are in decline across the country. The Canadian Council of Forest Ministers has recognized woodland caribou as an indicator of forest sustainability.

Woodland caribou are a sensitive indicator of the ecological effects of development in northern Ontario. The success or failure of conservation efforts for this species also may serve as a benchmark to measure the sustainability of policy choices made by the Ontario government. If the threats to woodland caribou are not addressed systematically and in a concerted manner, this species could soon disappear from Ontario’s boreal forests forever.

The Loss of Woodland Caribou and their Habitat

Currently, woodland caribou are found mainly above of 50°N, north of Hearst and Dryden, with isolated populations scattered along the north shore and some islands of Lake Superior. The northern extent of their range bisects the Hudson Plain at about 53°N latitude. It is estimated that 20,000 woodland caribou remain in Ontario.

The majority of woodland caribou are members of the “forest-tundra” population; this group is not identified as a species at risk. Approximately one-quarter of Ontario’s woodland caribou primarily inhabit the boreal forest. This group is described as the sedentary “forest-dwelling” population, and it is considered a species at risk. MNR speculates that about 3,000 forest-dwelling woodland caribou remain in the area set aside for commercial forestry, south of roughly 51°N. However, available estimates of the numbers of woodland caribou in Ontario “are essentially guesses” according to the 2002 population assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

As recently as the late 19th century, woodland caribou ranged as far south as central Ontario to approximately 46° N, around North Bay. The species has lost an estimated half of its range in Ontario over the last century. Independent scientific research concludes that woodland caribou have lost an average of almost 35,000 km2 of range per decade in Ontario over the last century, which is equivalent to a loss of range the size of Algonquin Provincial Park every two years. This loss of range has effectively caused a northward range recession of roughly 34 km per decade. At this rate, and in the absence of substantive action, it is hypothesized that forest-dwelling woodland caribou will be wiped out in Ontario before the end of the 21st century.

Much of the range recession of woodland caribou in Ontario is coincident with landscape-level fragmentation of habitat – and the subsequent isolation of caribou populations – caused by logging, land clearing, and road building. Forestry activities also have been linked to a series of related threats to this species at risk, including changes to forest composition, increased forest fire suppression, and elevated levels of mortality due to significant alterations in predator-prey dynamics.

Government Approaches to Conservation

While MNR has been modifying forest management practices since the mid-1970s to mitigate the effects of timber harvesting on woodland caribou habitat, early attempts were unsuccessful. In 1994, the ministry began applying its Forest Management Guidelines for the Conservation of Woodland Caribou in northwestern Ontario. This regulated guideline prescribes that forestry operations should harvest timber in blocks of 10,000 ha or greater to minimize forest fragmentation, while ensuring comparable sized blocks of undisturbed old-growth forest for woodland caribou habitat.

In our 2001/2002 Annual Report, the ECO reviewed the caribou guidelines and stated that the determination of the “impacts of forestry operations on the boreal population of woodland caribou is dependent on effective monitoring.” The ECO encouraged MNR to conduct a rigorous scientific monitoring program and to consider woodland caribou habitat and range occupancy in the creation of new protected areas.

MNR is required to maintain a program of scientific studies to assess the effectiveness of forest management guides. In 2004, the ministry released its Provincial Wildlife Population Monitoring Program. This monitoring plan reduced the number of species to be monitored, relative to the previous plan, from 92 to 43. Among the few mammals that MNR chose to monitor were chipmunks, mice and voles. Alarmingly, woodland caribou were not one of the species that were chosen to be monitored by MNR, despite the fact that they are among the few species that have dedicated guidelines for their management.

More than five years in the making, MNR released a draft Recovery Strategy for Forest-Dwelling Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Ontario in 2006. The recovery strategy relies on the forestry guidelines “to protect caribou habitat.” Given the importance of these guidelines, the ECO conducted a review of independent forest audits, which revealed a clear and progressive pattern of woodland caribou habitat loss due to current forestry policy. Excerpts from a dozen of these independent forest audits are presented in Independent Forest Audits: Woodland caribou in the Supplement to this report.

The apparent conflict between regulated forestry guidelines – one for moose, the other for woodland caribou – makes a difficult situation even worse. The ministry’s guidelines for moose result in altered landscape patterns, causing increased wolf densities and unsustainably high mortality risks for woodland caribou. Even if the moose guidelines are not applied in occupied caribou range, their application elsewhere encourages a northward range expansion of moose that pressures woodland caribou. Additionally, MNR does not consider the impacts on other species when managing moose populations through regulated hunting. (The ECO has detailed this concern here). The ECO believes that MNR should aim to achieve pre-colonization population levels of moose when setting hunting quotas within occupied woodland caribou range, as well as areas where re-colonization of woodland caribou is feasible.

MNR’s focus on the maintenance of wood supply, together with its approach to fire suppression, could also have serious long-term consequences for woodland caribou. The ECO reviewed [[Ontario’s Forest Fire Management Strategy|Ontario’s Forest Fire Management Strategy] in our 2004/2005 Annual Report and concluded that “the forest-dwelling boreal population of woodland caribou depends upon fire as an ecological process to renew their habitat. It is not known how this policy choice – to replace naturally occurring fires with forest harvesting – will affect this species at risk.” That report also noted that the fire strategy contained “serious inconsistencies … based on giving priority to short-term wood supply over the ecological role of fire in some areas.”

The policy choices of ministries other than MNR unquestionably have an impact of woodland caribou. In 2006, an EBR application was submitted on the sufficiency of the measures that MNR, MNDM, MOE, and ENG have in place to conserve woodland caribou. The applicants were concerned that “while the government continues to delay actual (on the ground) implementation of a caribou recovery strategy, status quo industrial development continues ... in critical caribou habitat.” They expressed concern that the existing guidance is only applicable to forestry operations on Crown land. The applicants also were concerned about the impacts of other forms of development, including mineral exploration and development, road building and hydroelectric development.

MOE, MNDM and ENG turned down this EBR application. MNR chose to conduct a self-described “scoped review” that was restricted to its own monitoring provisions. MNR heavily relied on its yet-to-be released “Caribou Conservation Framework” to allay any possible concerns about the vulnerability of the species and its habitat. In essence, the MNR response could be construed as an admission that the current measures to conserve woodland caribou may not be sufficient, but that the public should have faith that the ministry is reviewing the issue. The main rationale for not conducting a full review was that there already were a suite of mechanisms in place to conserve woodland caribou; however, this position ignores the central point of the applicants’ request to review the actual effectiveness of these existing measures. This application is discussed in detail in 2007 Review of Measures to Conserve Woodland Caribou.

Climate change is likely to be one of the most critical threats to many species at risk in Ontario. It is alarming that the MNR’s draft recovery strategy for woodland caribou gives minimal treatment to this threat. The recovery strategy states that “climate change leading to changes in precipitation, decreased fire return intervals, or increased severity of fires could affect caribou by changing vegetation communities.” The strategy does acknowledge that the present pattern of climate change may continue to favour the expansion of white-tailed deer range. This is of particular concern as populations of these two ungulates rarely overlap, due to a parasite that is naturally hosted by deer and that is often fatal to woodland caribou.

MNR’s recovery strategy makes no mention of the need for new protected areas in northern Ontario. Protected areas cover only 7.7 per cent of the northern boreal, beyond the current limits of commercial forestry. Numerous independent scientific studies have concluded that a network of protected areas, including some areas that are at a minimum 9,000 to 13,000 km2 in size, are necessary to have a minimal prospect of maintaining viable populations of northern species such as woodland caribou.

Next Steps: Legal Protection of Habitat

In May 2007, the Endangered Species Act, 2007 passed Third Reading in the Ontario Legislature and was given Royal Assent. This new law will come into force by June 30, 2008. Threatened species, such as the forest-dwelling population of woodland caribou, will be specifically afforded legal protections by the Ontario government for the first time. The Endangered Species Act, 2007 is discussed in more detail in Reforming the Endangered Species Act.

This new law will prohibit the damage or destruction of the habitat of threatened or endangered species, unless allowed by special provisions that allow for exceptions. The habitat of each of these species is to be prescribed by regulation within five years of the Act coming into force. The Endangered Species Act, 2007 defines habitat as “an area on which the species depends, directly or indirectly, to carry on its life processes, including life processes such as reproduction, rearing, hibernation, migration or feeding.”

In May 2007, the Minister of Natural Resources committed to regulating the habitat of the forest-dwelling population of woodland caribou by June 2009. The scope of genuine protection prescribed for their habitat will be a measure of the effectiveness of the new law, as well as a benchmark to assess the environmental sustainability of policy choices by the Ontario government for northern Ontario.

ECO Comment

The ECO is gravely concerned about the long-term survival of Ontario’s woodland caribou. MNR’s recovery strategy is best described as an endorsement of the status quo, while imposing a further delay in taking tangible action. The strategy describes some pressures, but fails to genuinely tackle threats to the species. It also fails to identify and effectively protect critical habitat. Simply put, it does not meet the basic needs of this species at risk to maximize its chance of survival.

The ministry takes a ‘hold the line’ approach, deeming it successful if the numbers of woodland caribou do not drop. It is preposterous that the primary measure to “protect” this species at risk is a set of forestry guidelines on how to progressively log its habitat. The point of any recovery effort should be to actually recover the population in question, boosting its numbers to the point where it is no longer considered a species at risk. The ECO believes that the current approach sets unambitious, and arguably defeatist, objectives that create a best-case scenario for forest-dwelling woodland caribou to remain a “threatened species.”

MNR states that conserving this threatened species “will be an extremely difficult, expensive and long-term initiative, at a spatial and temporal scale not previously required.” This assessment is accurate. However, the ECO believes that the lack of effective measures to conserve woodland caribou appears to be influenced more by such economies, despite MNR’s assertion that recovery strategies are purely “science-based.”

The Crown Forest Sustainability Act commits the Ontario government to sustainable forestry. This law states that “large, healthy, diverse and productive Crown forests and their associated ecological processes and biological diversity should be conserved.” That is the vision and the ideal. Perhaps, the recovery of woodland caribou in the industrial forest is the ultimate test of that vision. In the end, we may fail in the task, but we should not fail because we did not commit the research and resources necessary to make a sincere and competent effort.

Woodland caribou epitomize why significant changes should be made to the way the Ontario government regulates and plans for northern Ontario, particularly for the intact boreal forest. While MNR is the lead ministry for managing wildlife, the policies of other ministries have a direct, and often negative, impact on conservation measures. A coordinated system of planning, backed by the force of law, is needed to ensure the protection of ecological values, such as woodland caribou.

Ministries often state that they are required to achieve a balance of ecological, social and economic objectives. The ECO believes that a threatened species such as the woodland caribou – that is at high risk of being forever lost from the province without concerted action – should be treated as a provincial interest and its protection should be a clear priority across all of government.

This is an article from the 2006/07 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2007. "Conserving Woodland Caribou: The Benchmark for Northern Sustainability." Reconciling our Priorities, ECO Annual Report, 2006-07. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 75-81.