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Caribou recovery strategy represents progress, but loopholes worrisome

Ottawa -- The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is pleased that the federal government has issued a long-awaited draft recovery strategy for Boreal woodland caribou, but is calling for some critical fixes to close loopholes that could undermine the species’ long-term survival.

Boreal woodland caribou are listed as nationally “threatened” within Canada, requiring the federal government to develop a recovery strategy for them under the Species-At-Risk Act. Environment Canada released the draft strategy on August 26th, and will accept public comments for 60 days. The government is expected to announce the final strategy a month after the public comment period ends.

“We’ve taken a careful look at the draft recovery strategy. On the one hand we’re pleased that the strategy acknowledges scientists’ findings that habitat loss from industrial development is the principle threat to Canada’s Boreal woodland caribou, and protecting intact habitat is key to their survival.  We’re also pleased that the strategy has identified critical habitat for this species across the country,” says Eric Hebert-Daly, CPAWS national executive director.

“However, the draft contains serious flaws that must be fixed so that it truly leads to the recovery of Canada’s iconic Boreal woodland caribou, rather than their continuing decline. For one, the strategy as it is now written would allow up to 35% of existing intact Boreal caribou habitat to be destroyed by industrial activities like logging, mining and oil and gas development. There is strong scientific evidence that allowing this much disturbance in currently intact habitat would give those caribou populations only a 60% chance of long term survival.  CPAWS believes the strategy should offer remaining Boreal woodland caribou a much better chance of survival, which means requiring a much lower level of disturbance in these areas than the currently proposed 35%, says Hebert-Daly.

Another major loophole in the strategy that CPAWS believes requires elimination is one that would allow continued destruction of woodland caribou habitat in areas that have already been heavily disturbed by industry, such as in northern British Columbia, and the oil sands regions in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where highly threatened herds of caribou are clinging by a thread to survival.

In such areas, the draft strategy could allow provincial governments to continue destroying critical Boreal woodland caribou habitat until only 5% remains. It could also enable these governments to implement decades of large-scale wolf killing, without protecting the habitat that caribou need to recover to self-sustaining levels over the long term.

"With only 5% of their remaining habitat – caribou have virtually no chance of recovering to self- sustaining population levels.We’re calling on the federal government to amend the strategy so that it requires greater protection of remaining undisturbed habitat in already heavily fragmented areas where Boreal woodland caribou are clinging to survival,” says Hebert Daly.

CPAWS is also concerned that the strategy does not specify the conditions required for provincial governments to declare that human-disturbed habitat has been restored to a state suitable again for caribou.

“Without this specification, we’re concerned that provincial and territorial governments could decide that previously logged or unsuitable lands are now “undisturbed habitat”, without any evidence that they are actually used by caribou,“ adds Hebert-Daly.

CPAWS believes that conserving boreal woodland caribou habitat across the country is possible while also ensuring a prosperous forest sector.  We are working to achieve both goals through the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.

CPAWS will be conducting further analysis of the draft strategy and submitting in-depth recommendations to the federal government on how to strengthen it, with the goal of ensuring the final strategy will support the recovery of self-sustaining populations of boreal woodland caribou across Canada.