Ontario's Threatened Caribou
by AnnaMaria Valastro
While people are waiting
breathlessly to see if caribou living in Alaska's National
Wildlife Refuge will be threatened by oil development, a similar
story is unfolding right here in Ontario. Many people here
are unaware that Ontario too is home to threatened caribou.
woodland caribou live in the province's frontier boreal forest
and, as of May of this year, the Committee on the Status of
Endangered Wildlife in Canada has designated it as a threatened
species. This is because Ontario's caribou are threatened
with the loss of their habitatancient pristine boreal
forestby industrial, clear-cut logging.
Caribou are the most ancient
of the deer family in North America and one of those species
that are old-growth dependent. They have evolved through the
ages with the natural rhythm of the forest and depend on the
richness and protection of that forest to survive.
Once a species is designated
as threatened, the Ontario government has a responsibility
to develop a recovery plan and prevent further decline as
a consequence of human activity. However, any discussion to
protect the ancient caribou and the forest ecosystem on which
they depend is restricted within the boundaries of the government's
first priority of maintaining industrial logging.
Rather than recognize that
caribou need large tracts of old, undisturbed forest to survive,
the Ontario government, in a twisted and perverse interpretation
of its responsibility, is using this opportunity to advocate
a move towards larger clear-cutsones that can reach
10,000 hectares (100 square kilometres) and beyond.
The government argues that
large cuts will provide the future "undisturbed"
areas for caribou. It is either arrogance or ignorance that
believes forest management can "grow" wilderness
or regenerate old-growth forests.
The caribou has been labelled
a "specialized" species because it is a creature
of old forests. Yet there is no room for both intensive logging
and a species that cannot survive on an industrial landscape.
So the government has developed a survival plan for caribou,
not based on science or even current caribou knowledge, but
rather on a strategy that fits into a predetermined policya
policy that will see every inch of Ontario's frontier boreal
forest clear-cut right up the to tree line.
Everywhere we have logged
in this province we have lost the caribou. Yet the Harris
government is now trying to tell folks that large clear-cuts
will save the caribou. This strategy has nothing to do with
caribou protection and is widely viewed as a timber grab.
Consider these facts. The annual allowable cut is set by a
computer model that has no spatial controls. This means it
does not take into account real operational restrictions such
as wildlife reserves and areas that cannot be logged due to
landscape barriers. As a result, the industry is complaining
it cannot realize its legal harvest allocation. They want
operational restrictions designed to protect biodiversity
values relaxed. Instead of recognizing that the annual allowable
cut is inflated, the government is moving towards larger and
cleaner clear-cuts to meet the timber industry's demands.
In addition, Ontario has
identified a significant timber shortage. It has determined
current timber consumption levels can be maintained until
2017, after which timber will be in short supply for the next
60 to 100 years.
Ontario's Forest Accord
guarantees the timber industry no long-term reduction in timber
supply and no net increase in the cost of supplying timber.
To keep this agreement, and in light of the anticipated timber
shortage, Ontario is not only moving towards bigger clear-cuts
but also towards intensive forestrynamely tree plantationswhich
will relax regulations to protect biodiversity and introduce
fast-growing trees. They are also opening the most northerly
forest, north of the commercial forest boundary, to industrial
loggingin an effort called the Northern Boreal Initiative.
So desperate are they for timber, that logging in certain
parks is also considered an option to maintaining wood supply.
And if all this isn't enough
to outrage, the Harris government has just awarded the timber
industry intellectual property rights for research that could
ultimately impact on forest diversity. This means that information
gathered by the timber industry for the purpose of forest
management could be protected from public scrutiny.
So how are the caribou going
to survive? Caribou used to roam as far south as Lake Nipissing
and Minnesota, but as logging removed Ontario's southern boreal
forest, the caribou have been forced to retreat north to the
last remaining large tracts of frontier forest. This is their
last safe refuge. There is no other place for the caribou,
yet this wilderness is also slated to be clear-cut.
To save the caribou, their
habitat must be protected. The amount of logging must decrease
to accommodate protection, and should be the result of an
ecosystem-based planning process. However, the Harris government
refuses to have such a dialogue. At the same time, the government
doesn't want to be credited for the extirpation of caribou,
so it has set its goal as maintaining the current number of
To achieve this, the government
is suggesting killing wolves rather than adjust forestry plans,
and if it is successful, it will consider opening a caribou
hunt to sport hunters to generate dollars. Twisted and perverse?
If the government can "maintain"
caribou by ensuring they have enough to eat to survive the
harsh and long winters, remove their predators and cull them
when their numbers get too large for an industrial landscape,
then technically the Harris government has achieved its legal
responsibility. But it has knowingly removed the wilderness
from the caribou and reduced them to managed animals on a
But the caribou will not
survive alongside industrial logging. They cannot live in
fake foreststhe kind reinvented for the purpose of timber
management. We need to share the land and give this "specialized"
species a place to live. A place they have chosen and not
one redefined by our own selfish needs.
The Harris government is
currently providing a small window of opportunity for public
comment on new forestry guidelines that will set no upper
limit on clear-cut sizes. The big clear-cuts work best in
frontier forest where they can be laid out as desired to maximize
timber supply. In Ontario, the scheduled cuts of 10,000 hectares
are mostly in Ontario's northwest boreal, the largest remaining
tract of ancient pristine boreal forest and caribou country.
Public debate is crucial
before undertaking such a blind experiment with such enormous
and possibly irreversible ecological implications.
AnnaMaria Valastro is a
member of the Peaceful
Parks Coalition, a group dedicated to preserving Ontario's
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 38, Winter 2002. Copyright AnnaMaria Valastro.
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