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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.

Ontario's forest-dwelling 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 habitat—ancient pristine boreal forest—by 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-cuts—ones 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 policy—a 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 forestry—namely tree plantations—which 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 logging—in 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 animals.

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 managed landscape.

But the caribou will not survive alongside industrial logging. They cannot live in fake forests—the 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 wild spaces.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 38, Winter 2002. Copyright AnnaMaria Valastro.



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