Canada’s Caribou Herds Continue to Decline With Growth of Oil Industry

A new report finds that local and national governments are failing to save the iconic forest species.
Canada's caribou populations have declined dramatically over the past several decades, as the nation's boreal forest has been fragmented or razed for industrial development. (Photo: Universal Education/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Jan 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Populations of Canada’s woodland caribou continued to fall over the past year, despite a federal mandate directing provinces to help the species recover.

The main problem for the caribou, a North American species related to European reindeer, continues to be the destruction of its boreal forest habitat for mining, gas and oil development, and logging, according to a new report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Caribou now inhabit around 1.5 million square miles of Canada’s boreal forest, the report stated, less than half the area they populated in the 19th century. “There were around 32,000 caribou at last count, which is significantly smaller than the hundreds of thousands that used to occupy their traditional ranges,” said Éric Hébert-Daly, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

The woodland caribou is listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In 2012, the federal government released a strategic species recovery plan, which ordered provinces and territories to protect at least 65 percent of the species’ historic forest range. Scientists believe that this threshold would give the caribou a 60 percent chance at recovery.

“If I was crossing a bridge and was told that I only had a 60 percent chance of surviving that crossing, I wouldn’t feel very good about those odds,” Hébert-Daly said. “Yet that is the minimum threshold set by federal science and the recovery strategy, the minimum threshold that will give the caribou a decent chance of survival.”

The protection plans are supposed to be in place by 2017, but all the provinces are behind schedule in either creating or implementing the forest conservation mandate, he said.

“We’re talking about having protected 1 percent of its habitat in the past year,” said Hébert-Daly. “Even if you just look at the existing habitat for a number of these herds, there are places where barely 5 percent of their habitat is undisturbed.”

The group’s report highlighted inaction on caribou by the government of Ontario, which has exempted extractive industries such as logging from forest protection requirements under the provincial endangered species law. “That’s why our Ontario-based chapter has taken the provincial government to court,” Hébert-Daly said.

Related: The Boreal Is Burning

The group also faulted the provincial government of British Columbia for continuing to prioritize expansion of the liquid natural gas industry over forest protection by permitting “thousands of new hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) wells to be constructed, posing additional threats to our remaining boreal caribou.” Liquid natural gas extraction has driven extensive fragmentation of the province’s boreal forest, according to the report, with only 13 to 42 percent of caribou habitat undisturbed.

There were some bright spots for boreal caribou in 2015, including the election in May of a progressive government in Alberta. “In July, the government announced it would stop the sale of energy leases in caribou habitat,” Hébert-Daly said. “And they’re currently doing land-use planning, particularly in the Athabasca region, which is a big tar sands area. So it’s a big shift and therefore an encouraging news story, from a province that has been the black eye in Canada for many years. We’re seeing a lot of changes there that are very encouraging for us.”

Hébert-Daly said that at the current pace of change, however, boreal caribou will continue to die off.

“The truth is the federal recovery strategy came out four years ago, and there is one year left for provincial governments to come out with action plans, but only Manitoba has put out a draft plan at this point—and even they have extended the deadline,” he said.

“There are pieces of conservation that have taken place in the past year that are good signs,” he added, but “it’s one thing to have a plan in place and quite another to curb industrial activity on the ground.”