David Suzuki: Woodland caribou are at a crossroads

As a nation and a global community, Canada has a history of ignoring environmental crises until it’s all but too late. Many of us remember the 1990s, when tens of thousands of Canadians in the Maritimes lost their livelihoods after overfishing wiped out fish stocks.

The boom-and-bust history reflected in the collapse of the East Coast cod fishery, and in logging communities and mining towns, should teach us that when an opportunity to get something right on the environment comes along we must take immediate action or suffer the inevitable ecological and social consequences of our own short-sightedness.

Such a window of opportunity, to protect one of Canada’s most threatened wildlife species, has opened with the long-awaited release of the federal government’s draft recovery strategy for boreal woodland caribou. The boreal caribou is an iconic species threatened with extinction from the Yukon right across the country to Labrador. (The draft strategy is open to public comment until October 25, at www.sararegistry.gc.ca.)

A major prey species for wolves and other animals, including humans, woodland caribou are critical to sustaining the health of complex food webs that have evolved over millennia and to the well-being of hundreds of Aboriginal communities in the North that depend on the animal for sustenance and survival.

Although woodland caribou were once abundant throughout much of Canada and the northern United States, they have since lost around half of their historical range because of logging, mining, seismic lines, roads, hydroelectric projects, and other developments that have disturbed and fragmented their forest habitat.

One endangered herd in Alberta’s tar sands region west of Fort McMurray is at great risk of disappearing. Clear-cutting and no-holds-barred oil and gas exploration and development have affected more than 60 percent of the habitat of the Red Earth caribou herd, leaving little undisturbed forest where it can feed, breed, and roam.

If there is good news, it is that the science is clear about what must be done to save this species from extinction. A recent analysis by experts with the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel concludes that governments need to ensure that large stretches of woodland caribou habitat are protected from industrial disturbance. Specifically, herds will need at least two thirds of their ranges to be maintained in an undisturbed condition or restored to such. In core areas this could mean from 10,000 to 15,000 square kilometres of old-growth boreal forest being set aside.

Under the federal Species at Risk Act, recovery strategies must use the best available science and traditional Aboriginal knowledge to identify habitat the species needs to survive and recover. The government must also set population objectives and identify threats to species survival and how these threats can be reduced through better management.

The federal government has incorporated some of the important ideas advanced by scientists. Under the recovery strategy, core habitat will be protected for about half the herds left in Canada. However, the strategy suffers from serious shortcomings. Many herds, deemed not to be self-sustaining, appear to have been written off to remove barriers to further industrial activities in their habitat, such as tar sands development in Alberta. Instead of protecting and restoring the remaining habitat of these herds, the government is proposing controversial band-aid measures like killing thousands of wolves and other predators. This kind of management is aimed at stabilizing declining caribou populations rather than recovering them—a contravention of Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Canada’s official recovery strategy and supporting science show that if caribou are to survive, huge areas of the boreal will need to be protected, and we will have to embark on a more ecological approach to industrial development in those places that we exploit for timber and drill, frack, and strip-mine for fossil fuels. Environmentalists and forestry companies are already attempting that by working together under the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement to develop joint caribou conservation plans that protect habitat while ensuring that the economic viability of companies is maintained.

The federal government’s plans will help those herds that have been deemed self-sustaining, but they fall far short of what is necessary to ensure that dozens of herds won’t perish. As such, it is a compromise that is too costly for caribou, and ultimately our own country, to bear.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Terrestrial Conservation and Science Program director Faisal Moola and biologist Jeff Wells.



John Savard

Sep 13, 2011 at 11:28pm

I remember how many people in Newfoundland lost their livelihoods after the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery. It was because of intense overfishing by French vessels in waters France claimed due to the presence of the St. Pierre and Miquelon islands.

France, unlike Canada, has atomic weapons. So there was nothing Canada could have done about this, and thus it is not evidence of our government ignoring environmental issues.

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James G

Sep 13, 2011 at 11:49pm

Crossroads is certainly the wrong word to use to describe situation. Although woodland caribou are a threatened species, the Red Earth heard are nearly on the far southern edge of the animal's range, excepting for the isolated herds in the National Parks. Instead of the word crossroad, it should perhaps read fringe. Just like the usual fringe spiel from this column which looks for any reason to kick at the tar sands. There are issues to raise with regard to land claims that deserve support in the area but blaming the tar sands project for making the woodland caribou a threatened species is unfounded.

If we consider Dr. Suzuki's American counterpart as a celebrity spokesperson on the environment, Daryl Hannah, also had nonsense to spew regarding the tar sands. She claimed that the tar sands slurry pond could be seen "from outer space".

For fun, let's examine the science of this. Outer space, well, we can forgive this obvious refugee from Alpha Centauri for going that far but mere humans might have to do with orbit. Let's go up only as far as the nearest orbit and not pretend we don't need some kind of protective lens over the oft mentioned 'naked eye'. We would still need at least a twenty time magnification to see anything so small as the Great Wall, never mind the slurry pond.

Pretending things are a way they are not is a great way to raise funds for an organization. It may not be so good for this country. Ultimately, leaving billions of dollars worth of oil in the ground would drive Canada into depression. The numbers of those who are unemployed and those who are impoverished would certainly increase more dramatically than it has already. Where are these so-called activists who support vanity projects like woodland caribou when people are in need? Why never any criticism of the exponential escalation in social inequity over the last three decades? Oh, yes, of course .. no criticism of what might hurt the inheritance or criticize what Mommy and Daddy drive.

Why exactly give money to this organization? If you are so intent of keeping the social order intact and delivering more control to the elite, love the HST supporters such as the B.C. Liberals or the Ontario Liberals, why not just give to them directly? You will get a better tax break.

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Caribou Cate

Sep 14, 2011 at 11:49am

James G: You appear to put a lot of time and thought into the comments you post. So, may I suggest that you step back and put some more thought into the actual points you want to make without having your personal dislike of individual environmentalists or organizations cloud your arguments?

For example, calling protection of an endangered species like woodland caribou a "vanity project" dismisses all the points made in this article and others about the importance of species and habitat protection to people and animals alike, but it doesn't really offer a sound rebuttal. Saying that you can't see the tar sands from a distant galaxy so they are not a problem just isn't an argument at all.

And of course, there are the straw man arguments about leaving the "oil in the ground". I suggest you read Andrew Nikiforuk's Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent to see that the arguments are far more nuanced. It's about using oil and gas resources wisely while making (and helping to pay for) the transition to cleaner, less-polluting energy sources.

These are important issues, and they are worthy of comment, discussion, and debate, and you seem to have the time and inclination to weigh in. So, why not exercise the potential that you often come close to demonstrating by relying more on logic and rational debate than on red herrings and personal attacks?

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Donald Sutherman

Sep 14, 2011 at 3:07pm

This is a very important issue that needs, and hopefully will be, addressed in the near future. The species is important to overall ecosystem health.

Well James G, you are super smart clearly because you were able to quote Daryl Hannah in an attempt to delegitimize the science. Its unfortunate that you cannot put together a congnizant arguement and instead just spew tripe that isn't worthy of the energy it took you to type it. Its a hard knock life blindly following an ideology to the point of make believe.

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James G

Sep 14, 2011 at 10:06pm

"blindly following an ideology to the point of make believe"

It would be so great if you could see the irony in that.

The targeting of tar sands as a reason for woodland caribou as a species being threatened is still wrong. It has certainly affected the herd on the southernmost edge of it's range and that is all. You'd think that there would be more of an effort in this writing to find reasons rather than speculate with intent.

I won't be part of the hive mind that can put aside belief in democracy, ignore the market economy or promote outright fiction in obedience to the rote-response expected from this environmental guru.

Under the influence of empty writing like this, zealots elected to Vancouver City Council ("Vision Vancouver") brought their faux-green war to my neighborhood and my home and I will do what is necessary to defend it and defeat them. In an argument to destroy a vital inner city roadway, the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, it has been suggested that since temporary closure of same had caused no great harm during the 2010 Winter Olympics, they can be demolished altogether. Well, I live right on the so called "unaffected" street and it became a virtual parking lot during said games. There is the motivation you question, in regards to why anyone would take the time and effort. It has nothing to do with any payments from lobbyists nor membership in organizations or parties. I just need to defend my home and I will do so.

The land gained with the destruction of those traffic links will be handed over to developers to build an astonishing 30 residential towers, complicating further density and traffic issues. This comes from the political party that said nary a word about this project prior to their election and with my then green-friendly vote. If 'green' becomes synonymous with a lack of respect for the democratic franchise, if it includes handing over swathes of land to developers and has a completely closed mind to public input, as it is now in Vancouver, it is not worth having.

Don't feel singled out as a generation. Yours isn't the first group of privileged youth to demand leadership, assume control and try to own everything including dissent itself.

During the protests against the American military action in Vietnam, I noticed pretty much the same trend among my own generation. Kids from prominent families, they the children of the comfortably concerned, would arrive and join in protest activity and assume they were entitled to leadership positions. They weren't so great at turning up when there was work to be done and they quickly vanished once the spotlight was off an issue but the key thing is that they still stood for maintenance of the social order.

Daryl Hannah is indeed an easy target. Even when I was in high school, we were corrected about suggesting that this or that item was visible from "the Moon," "Outer Space" or "from Orbit with the naked eye" and if the space cadet analogy fits, it fits.

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Caribou Cate

Sep 15, 2011 at 9:04am

OK, James. G, you have proved me wrong! You don't put any thought into the comments you post. You're just another ranter who confirms what most of us now know - that as long as publications use the comments section as a cynical way to increase click rates rather than to encourage discussion (with proper moderation) comments sections will never be a forum for rational debate.

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Sep 17, 2011 at 2:41pm

The real underlying issue is population growth that keeps up demand for ever more power (be it Hydro, or tar sands oil), ever more lumber (for homes), pulp and paper, minerals, and other resources. The only way to curb that, and thereby protect caribou, is to cut Canada's massive immigration intake that is at all-time highs. The Science Council of Canada has warned that immigration needs to reflect environmental realties and should be dramatically reduced. Few Canadians have any idea that current immigration under Harper (who has increased it) is actually 4 to 5 times higher than what it was under Trudeau. Such high immigration is done to feed growth and appease certain industries, notably the construction industry. If Canada reduced immigration to environmentally sustainable levels, there would be no need for any more hydro electric, oil and gas, or clear-cut logging in the boreal forest. Cutting immigration is a more logical, easier, and effective way to reduce overall consumption. Unfortunately, all of Canada's political parties remain corrupted by their desire to capture the "ethnic vote" and cynically maintain high immigration levels in the not mistaken belief that most new immigrants vote for the party in power upon their arrival in Canada.

One hopes environmentalism can triumph over the business driven immigration industry. Read Canadian Geographic's Story for more information: http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/blog/posting.asp?ID=417

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