Environmental groups call on federal government to protect caribou in northern Ontario

Wild caribou roam the tundra near The Meadowbank Gold Mine located in the Nunavut Territory of Canada on March 25, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Three environmental groups are calling on the federal government to protect boreal caribou in northern Ontario, saying a decade of mismanagement by the province has put the animals increasingly at risk.

The David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature and the Wildlands League issued a petition to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna this week, requesting that she recommend federal cabinet issue what’s known as a “safety net order” under the Species at Risk Act for two boreal caribou populations about 120 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.

The move would prevent damage to or destruction of 65 per cent of the caribou populations’ habitats — the amount of undisturbed land that the federal government said in a 2012 report would give the animals a 60 per cent shot at becoming self-sustaining.

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“Caribou is an indicator of a healthy boreal forest,” said Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for Wildlands League. “That forest is the backbone of our country in terms of providing us with ecosystem services, whether it’s cleaning our air, purifying our water, stabilizing our soil.”

A spokeswoman for McKenna said the federal government is “taking swift action” to protect nature and wildlife, but did not respond to questions about the petition’s request.

In issuing their petition, the groups put together a report that said the Ontario government doesn’t know exactly how many caribou remain in the two at-risk herds because no surveys have been conducted on them since 2013.

The animals’ populations have been on the decline since before that time, the groups contend, and the conditions of their habitats are only getting worse.

“We know they’re not doing well,” said Baggio. “We know the calves aren’t surviving. We know the adult females aren’t surviving enough to replenish the population, and they’re facing more pressures. So the responsible thing to do would be to a) protect the habitat, and b) keep up the monitoring every year.”

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The province’s Ministry of Natural Resources — which handled endangered species before Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives took power this summer — and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change — which now handles endangered species — did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Baggio said it was irresponsible of the province not to keep close track of the health of the caribou population, given the continued development of their habitat.

“You know what they haven’t stopped doing? They haven’t stopped handing out permits for industrial development,” Baggio said, listing forestry, mining and mineral exploration as some of the key industries of concern.

A safety net order, Baggio noted, wouldn’t shut down industry in northern Ontario entirely.

“These ranges are massive,” she said. “You can protect critical habitat and there would be room for the industries to operate.”

She said the request for the federal government to step in was considered a last resort.

“We have exhausted all options,” she said. “We’ve sat in the public consultations. We’ve done the studies. We’ve put forward solutions.”

Sarah McDonald, a lawyer with Ecojustice who helped compile the groups’ report, said she believed a safety net order hasn’t been issued before but argued it would be a bold, positive move.

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“It’s a big step for the government to step in and say that this large portion of land, at least in the case of caribou, is protected — especially when that land is technically under provincial jurisdiction,” she said.

“Whether (the petition) results in an order or whether it just incentivizes the province to step up its game and do something to protect these ranges, either would be perfect for us as long as the outcome is that these caribou ranges are protected.”

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