Caring for caribou is a matter of urgency

You may have a caribou in your pocket.

You may have a caribou in your pocket.

This important Canadian icon has appeared on our 25-cent coin since 1936. It would be a tragedy if this were the only place you could spot this magnificent animal, though.

If we don’t protect Canada’s boreal forest, that could be the result.

The boreal forest extends like a green halo over 35 per cent of our northern land mass. Stretching from Newfoundland to the Yukon, it forms the largest intact forest left on the planet.

This vast region of spruce, aspen, and fir trees, and lakes, river valleys, wetlands, and peat bogs supports three billion migratory songbirds, millions of waterfowl and shorebirds, and is a safe-haven for the remaining large predatory animals left on the continent, including wolves, grizzly bears, wolverines, and lynx.

Much of this biological richness is at risk from industrial activity such as logging, oil and gas development, mining, and large hydroelectric dams. Among the species most at risk of disappearing is a shy and highly secretive animal called the boreal woodland caribou.

It is listed as “threatened” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Caribou are not only well-loved symbols of Canada’s identity and a source of national pride; they are also a key indicator of the health of boreal forest ecosystems.

When woodland caribou populations start to decline, it’s a sure sign that the forests they inhabit are not faring well.

A recent scientific report commissioned by the federal government under the Species at Risk Act has found that the animal is in trouble right across the country.

This doesn’t bode well for the ecological health of the boreal region.

Boreal woodland caribou depend on large, intact forest landscapes for their survival. But caribou have already disappeared from half of their historical range in Canada, and scientists believe the probability of many of those herds surviving for the next 100 years is less than 50 per cent.

Herds in Alberta, British Columbia, and the southern Northwest Territories are particularly at risk of extinction because of the intensity of ongoing forestry and energy activity.

For example, one herd in the foothills west of Hinton, is now critically endangered.

Close to 82 per cent of the Little Smoky herd’s habitat is now degraded by a mosaic of clearcuts, crisscrossed with roads, seismic lines, and oil and gas pipelines, and pockmarked with well-heads. Scientists have determined that this herd, and in fact, every herd in Alberta, cannot survive unless we work to protect its current habitat and to restore habitat that has been degraded.

Elsewhere in the boreal, including Ontario and Quebec, levels of industrial activity are quickly approaching similar thresholds of habitat disturbance beyond which caribou can no longer survive without decisive action on the part of federal, provincial, and territorial governments.

There is a bright spot: scientists believe that in some large areas, such as the northern Northwest Territories, habitat has not yet been degraded to the point where caribou populations are at risk.

We still have time to ensure that caribou herds do not become extinct. But it will require full and immediate implementation of Canada’s provincial, territorial, and federal endangered species laws and accompanying policies.

In particular, governments must immediately halt further industrial activities in the ranges of critically endangered herds and must use the findings of the scientists to develop and enact recovery and action plans that identify and protect the habitat that caribou need for food, breeding, migration, and other necessities of survival.

As well as using scientific knowledge, governments must also reach out to aboriginal people in the boreal who have interacted with the species for millennia.

Aboriginal Canadians have significant and important knowledge about woodland caribou, and governments need to respectfully gather that knowledge and incorporate it into recovery measures for the species. Aboriginal people need to be fully involved in recovery efforts, as the survival of caribou is not only critical to the ecological health of the forest, but also the health, culture, and well-being of Aboriginal peoples who share its boreal habitat.

There was a time not long ago when billions of passenger pigeons darkened the skies for days, when huge herds of bison ranged along the centre of the continent, supporting wolves and grizzly bears.

Today caribou are the remnants of the once breathtaking abundance of animals in North America. Are we willing to protect them from becoming mere memories stamped on our coins?

This column is co-written by broadcaster David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist.

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