Ontario is home to the beautiful, threatened herds of woodland caribou (often called boreal caribou). As the featured animal on the Canadian quarter, woodland caribou are majestic creatures that are being left behind in today's world. Ontario's government has rolled back protections and ramped up industrial activities in caribou habitat. In 2020, Bill 229 was passed which gives commercial forestry a 'free-pass' on the destruction of species at risk habitat. That means, herds already in peril now have no legal barrier preventing intensive logging occurring in their critical habitats and calving grounds. We need to act now and call on our governments to implement a real recovery plan for woodland caribou, call out greenwashing in commercial forestry, and conserve our old-growth boreal forest in the north.
Where are woodland caribou in Ontario?
There are 13 unique herds of woodland caribou across northern Ontario, from the shores of Lake Superior to the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands. Many herds do not mean many caribou. Ontario's woodland caribou were added to the Species At Risk list in 2008. They thrive in boreal peatlands where they can calve away from predators and have plenty of lichen to forage on. Healthy boreal forests are the habitat they need to make it. Many woodland caribou herds are found on Ontario's Crown land which is managed by the provincial Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, and Forestry + Indigenous Affairs.
How are woodland caribou doing?
Not well! Only one herd of 13 are considered stable, and that is based on an outdated study from 2011; the twelve remaining herds were found to be decreasing. With no recovery plan in place for Ontario, things aren't looking good. Overall, woodland caribou are in the disappearing across the province and we're at a breaking point in many herds. Woodland caribou need a healthy boreal forest to survive. A dense boreal forest forms a protective barrier between caribou and their predators so they can establish calving grounds that are safe to raise their young. More and more unsustainable commercial forestry is compromising caribou calving grounds.
How is commercial forestry pushing woodland caribou out of Ontario?
Big forestry in Northern Ontario poses a direct conflict with woodland caribou populations. Large intensive forestry creates noise pollution from harvesting equipment and removes significant portions of old-growth boreal forest, turning a dense sheltered forest into a tapestry of clear-cut openings and cross sectional roads for logging trucks. With this fragmenting of the boreal, woodland caribou habitats are compromised. With forest clearings and deep penetrating logging roads in the boreal, other large animals like moose and deer are able move into caribou habitat. With increased moose and deer comes predators like wolves. Unfortunately, the narrative that these naturally occurring wolves are the reason behind caribou declines is a pervasive one in media. At the core, it is intensive logging causes woodland caribou declines.
Commercial forestry organizations like the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC), which represents the large forestry industries that have harvest old-growth forests in woodland caribou habitat lead greenwashing campaigns to suggest they are working to protect woodland caribou. In 2020, commercial forestry was granted a 'free-pass' to destroy species at risk habitat (woodland caribou habitat) when extracting wood from the boreal forest with the passing of provincial Bill 229. The forestry sector made no public opposition to this scaling back of wildlife protection.
Wait, so are wolves a threat to woodland caribou?
Wolves play a vital role in keeping big ecosystems like the boreal forest in check. As a top predator they keep moose and deer populations down so the forest and peatlands aren't over grazed. Normally, they do not directly overlap with woodland caribou habitat in a way that is devastating to their populations, but as more and more logging roads are built closer and closer to woodland caribou calving grounds, conflict arises. Forestry would have you believe that wolves are the root of woodland caribou population declines, but wolves are naturally occurring, whereas logging roads are not. We need to re-write this false narrative set out by commercial forestry and remember who put the fox in the hen house.
What do we need to do?
We need to work in coalition with governments and organizations that are dedicated to protecting species are risk like woodland caribou. Ontario still lacks a true recovery strategy for its woodland caribou and we need one established now before it's too late. Environmental injustices like Bill 229 need to be undone and commercial forestry in the old-growth boreal forest needs to stop so woodland caribou have time to recover. The boreal needs time to heal and greenwashing in the commercial forestry sector needs to be removed. Sustainable forestry practices exist, but we are not seeing it at a large scale here in Ontario, contrary to narratives put out by FPAC.