A forestry industry lobby group is working to undermine Canada’s plans to protect endangered caribou, according to several experts.
Several caribou populations in Canada are listed as threatened or endangered under the Species At Risk Act, which means provincial and federal governments are legally required to protect habitat and develop recovery plans to avoid localized extinction.
Scientists have pinpointed habitat fragmentation, caused by things like oil and gas activity, seismic lines, forestry and hydroelectric development, as the leading cause of caribou declines.
“We know more about caribou than almost any other species in Canada,” says Mark Hebblewhite, associate professor of ungulate habitat biology at the University of Montana.
John Bergenske, conservation director for Kootenay conservation group Wildsight, said the forestry industry is trying to shift emphasis away from habitat.
“But it all boils down to habitat,” Bergenske said. “There’s not a single scientific paper that won’t go back to that when you’re talking about caribou.”
Industry Campaign ‘Misrepresents’ Caribou Declines, Creates Doubt
The Caribou Facts website raises questions about the cause of caribou declines in Canada, sowing doubt that recovery plans are “based on sound science.”
Canadians are encouraged to sign a petition targeted to MPs with suggested text that reads, “I’m afraid that the wrong approach will do nothing for caribou and will kill thousands of Canadian jobs.”
Hebblewhite said the website “misrepresents” the causes of caribou decline, which are well known to the scientific community.
“They are trying to create a sense of uncertainty,” he said. “Just like the anti-climate science lobbyists do: they want to say it’s too uncertain, we can’t do anything.”
“That’s complete bullshit,” Hebblewhite told DeSmog Canada. “It is disingenuous to anyone with half a brain.”
The forestry industry has tried to move the government’s focus away from the issue of caribou recovery to that of job losses, Bergenske said.
“It is a really unfortunate ploy.”
The Forest Products Association of Canada told DeSmog Canada a spokesperson could not be made available to comment on this story.
The Caribou Facts website seems to undermine the Forest Product Association’s own commitment in 2012 to the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement and their own methodology for how to move forward together on caribou recovery, Campbell told DeSmog Canada.
“At that time they recognized loss of habitat as the key driver of caribou loss.”
According to provincial estimates, caribou in Alberta are disappearing at a rate of about eight per cent per year due to habitat loss from energy and forestry development, which in turn increases the reach of predators like wolves into caribou habitat. A total of 96 per cent of the critically endangered Littly Smoky caribou range is within 500 metres of human development.*
Campbell said the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement resulted in deferred logging in caribou ranges, although she adds, some recent studies of mapping show those deferrals weren’t always honoured.
Critical caribou habitat in British Columbia has also suffered continued industrial incursion.
As DeSmog Canada reported in April, the B.C. government granted permits to Canfor, a member of the Forest Products Association of Canada, to log in critical mountain caribou habitat.
The permits were granted to Canfor despite the provincial government’s knowledge mountain caribou are at risk of extinction and the company’s own commitment to avoid logging in critical habitat for species at risk.
Canfor engaged in clear-cut logging near Wells Gray Provincial Park while locals appealed to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna for an emergency stop-work order and an enforcement of federal Species At Risk laws.
Campaign Targets Minister at Critical Time
Species at risk are listed by the federal government on the recommendation of the non-governmental Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Once listed those species are then subject to a recovery goal that identifies critical habitat. In 2012 the federal government laid out a goal of 65 per cent undisturbed habitat in caribou ranges — a target provinces must now work into provincial recovery plans.
Those plans were due on Oct. 5 — but the vast majority of provinces failed to meet the deadline, prompting First Nations, environmental organizations and corporations to call on minister McKenna to intervene at the federal level.
The September roll-out of the ‘Caribou Facts’ campaign was timed to influence the minister, Hebblewhite said.
“In the U.S. the Endangered Species Act includes an analysis of the socio-economic impacts of the Act. So that’s where industry meddling occurs, that’s where you’ll see industry lobbying,” he said.
But when Canada drafted the Species At Risk Act, it was designed to focus on biology, rather than economics.
“At no time during these phases are socio-economic influences considered. It’s meant to be a scientific analysis.”
Once recovery plans are developed, provinces are able to move into the action planning phase, which is where Canada is now with incoming range plans, Hebblewhite said.
Minister McKenna will take until April 2018 to evaluate provincial and territorial plans.
“The minister now has the right to consider socio-economic concerns,” Hebblewhite said. “So that is why we’re seeing this industry campaign now. The minister is the main audience here.”
*This article was updated to specifiy 96 per cent of the Little Smoky caribou range is within 500 metres of human disturbance, rather than all caribou habitat.