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3 reasons why caribou need strong federal and provincial endangered species acts and actions


Last month, the Woodland Caribou was officially added to the territorial species at risk list in the NWT.

To me this seemed pretty exciting, but I wondered: what does it mean for woodland caribou to be listed both under the Federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) as well as under provincial or territorial legislation? Is it necessary to have caribou listed in both places?

Reason #1: Covering the right habitat

There are four important components to any type of endangered species act:

  • Identify the species that need help (e.g., woodland caribou)
  • Protect them from harm (e.g., hunting)
  • Protect the spaces they need for food, shelter and reproduction (e.g., old growth forests)
  • Develop and implement action plans to ensure their survival over time (e.g., change policies that allow building unnecessary roads where caribou live).

SARA only automatically protects listed species and their habitat if they’re migratory birds, aquatic species, or species on federal lands, like national parks.

The woodland caribou’s range extends from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and while some woodland caribou spend time in national parks, most live on lands managed by provincial governments. In fact some herds travel between provinces, making it even more complicated to protect them and the places where they live.


Map from COSEWIC 2002

Having provincial or territorial legislation therefore, is important for getting caribou habitat protected, while the federal legislation is needed to ensure there is coordination between provinces and territories and timely implementation.

Reason #2: Making Habitat Protection a Priority

There is still a lot of work to be done to strengthen provincial and territorial legislation for protecting endangered species. For example:

  • Some, like Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC, and the Yukon, need an endangered species law.
  • Others have laws, but they are missing one or more of the important components.
  • Still others have a good law in place, but the law is undermined by poor implementation. A 2013 regulation in amending the Ontario ESA for example, allows major industries to avoid the strict ESA standards.

In many cases, even when legislation exists, protecting habitat is the missing piece, or the piece not implemented.

Strengthening provisions means slightly different things in every province and territory. In the meantime, having both the federal and provincial laws, though neither is perfect, increases the chances that action to protect caribou habitat will be taken. In addition, SARA creates incentive for provinces to take action, by allowing that federal government may step in if other jurisdictions don’t take action.

Photo: Wayne Sawchuk

Reason #3: Getting the Science and Actions Right

Federal recovery strategies, required under SARA, are meant to compile the best information on the species, their habitat, and the threats and best strategies to protect both nationally. They provide the backdrop for ensuring consistent and coordinated science-based approaches.

When it comes to action plans that implement a recovery strategy however, more detail is needed. Here provincial and territorial governments may have additional information and implementation tools at their disposal, as well as an ability to focus further on specific herds and habitat to come up with the best solutions.

When working together, federal and provincial science and actions can present the best package for species protection.

Why Boreal Woodland Caribou are special when it comes to ESA

Boreal woodland caribou have a special status in the Species at Risk family. The federal recovery strategy for these caribou is unique in that it requires provinces and territories to develop and implement plans to ensure that, where there is a caribou herd in their jurisdiction, 65% of the area where the caribou herd lives is undisturbed. These plans, called range plans, must be developed within 3-5 years. This approach has led to good outcomes including passing provincial and territorial ESAs and developing range plans even where they are not required under existing legislation.

We think it is important for all federal caribou recovery strategies to require the development of range plans, including for the Southern mountain woodland caribou.

To learn more about what is happening in your province see here and here.

Photo: Emily Smith