Woodland Caribou

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Woodland caribou are a reclusive and iconic species of the boreal forest that is designated “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As the map below illustrates, woodland caribou have been disappearing from the landscape as their southern limit of occurrence moves north over the decades due to a variety of human induced disturbances. Most notable of these disturbances in more recent years is the opening up of intact forest landscapes by forestry activities.

A rather concerning phenomenon in Canada as of late is the thawing of permafrost. Permafrost is any land that remains completely frozen for at least two years straight. When permafrost thaws, microbes begin to decompose this material, and as a result, greenhouses gases such as CO2 and methane are released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, this thawing also leads to the release of ancient bacteria and viruses from the ice and soil which could be potentially harmful to animals and humans. Studies have found that one way to keep permafrost from thawing is to increase the number of grazing herbivores who travel above it. These herbivores naturally trample down winter snow which subsequently acts as an insulator for frozen permafrost. The only native animal in Northern Ontario that is capable of doing this is the caribou, which further emphasizes the importance of restoring their populations.

Earthroots was one of several organizations that campaigned aggressively over the years for modifications in forest management techniques to preserve caribou habitat and mitigate the population decline. That campaign appeared to succeed when MNR (now MNRF) published a recovery strategy in 2008 as was required by the ESA . That recovery strategy was a sincere effort by competent technical professionals  and it seemed to set the Ministry on a course toward a sophisticated system of boreal forest management that would stop the species decline. It appeared the provisions of the ESA were doing their job.

Unfortunately it was all too good to be true for too long. In 2018 the government “temporarily” suspended the application of the ESA to forestry operations, and in 2020 they permanently exempted forestry from the ESA. There are no more legislative protections of woodland caribou from forestry operations, only guidelines in the forest management planning documents.

Guidelines are not mandatory. There are no penalties or punishments for not following guidelines. A forestry company or the Ministry responsible can’t be taken to court for violating guidelines.

So again, the effort to assure that the Crown forest is managed for the persistence of woodland caribou falls to the people of Ontario working with groups like Earthroots. Please help us by supporting this campaign!

Approximate historical and current southern limits of continuous distribution of woodland caribou in Ontario (from Darby et al. 1989).

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