A new five-year agreement between the federal government and Ontario to protect the province’s beleaguered caribou is a “spectacular failure for the species,” environmental groups say.
Ottawa and the province reached the agreement last week, with both calling it “key to managing caribou recovery” that also takes into account the economy.
But several environmental groups say they are devastated by the new deal.
The Wildlands League, the David Suzuki Foundation and Ontario Nature said the recent agreement encourages clearing of forested areas that are part of boreal caribou habitat.
“It’s a spectacular failure,” said Anna Baggio, conservation director of the Wildlands League.
“This agreement enshrines further habitat destruction.”
She said the deal does nothing to ensure logging and mining in the caribou range of northern Ontario is curbed.
Boreal caribou are a threatened species both federally under the Species at Risk Act and in Ontario under the Endangered Species Act.
About 5,000 caribou remain in the province, the federal and provincial governments said.
There is also a small, isolated population along the coast and on several islands of Lake Superior.
In 2019, the province, Michipicoten First Nation, and several conservationists helped move small numbers of caribou to various islands in the lake to help save this population.
Several wolves managed to get onto Michipicoten Island when the water froze over in 2014, creating an ice bridge. The wolves killed and ate most of the caribou over the next few years. These wolves were relocated to Isle Royale on the American side of Lake Superior.
“It’s shocking,” Ontario Nature’s Julee Boan said in a statement about the deal.
“This agreement not only delays caribou habitat restoration, but gives the green light for further habitat destruction.”
The David Suzuki Foundation accused Federal Environment Secretary Steven Guilbeault of prioritizing relations with the Ontario government over habitat protection.
“We’ve seen minister after minister and bureaucrat after bureaucrat waiting for Ontario to do the right thing instead of taking action,” said Rachel Plotkin of the David Suzuki Foundation in a statement.
“The sad thing is that after all the waiting, the province is still advancing a political landscape that encourages habitat destruction.”
The provincial Department of Environment, Conservation and Parks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The agreement “provides a framework that commits both governments to adopting and implementing conservation measures necessary to maintain and restore self-sustaining populations of boreal caribou in the province,” the decision on the agreement, which states published on the provincial government’s website.
The decision also notes that the caribou’s range “also provides many valuable natural resources for the forest and mineral exploration and mining sectors.”
“While the primary objective of this agreement is to maintain or enhance the environmental conditions necessary for boreal caribou recovery, Ontario and Canada recognize that in achieving boreal caribou protection and recovery, social and economic factors consistent with conservation efforts must be considered said the decision.
Environmental groups said the deal contradicts threats by Federal Environment Secretary Steven Guilbeault to unilaterally impose stricter caribou protections in Quebec.
Quebec officials, from the prime minister to the forest minister, said it was an oversight by the federal government and would cost jobs.
Environment and climate change Canada said on Thursday the agreement with Ontario “does not prevent the minister from exercising his powers under the Species at Risk Act”.
“The parties to the agreements will be held accountable and will demonstrate progress in implementing the conservation measures outlined in the conservation agreement through public reporting,” the ministry said in a statement.
Guilbeault said the deal was a “significant first step in ensuring sustainability”.
“It includes significant new commitments related to habitat restoration activities, the increase in habitat conservation areas, better evidence-based decision-making, monitoring and reporting, and collaboration with stakeholders, which will be enhanced through a joint investment of $10 million for 2022- be supported in 2023,” he said.
“We recognized that further conservation efforts and additional funding would be required in the future to ensure the caribou’s successful recovery.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 28, 2022.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press