With the provinces due to submit caribou range plans to the federal government this month, the large mammal has become front page news again.

Speaking for the Forest Products Association of Canada and its members, Derek Nighbor wants to emphasize that any plans for the recovery of woodland caribou should be based on up-to-date science, and bear in mind the possible economic costs to rural and northern communities.

“This is about getting a result that will provide meaningful support to the species and not put jobs at risk,” said the FPAC president and CEO in an interview with The Working Forest.

Nighbor explains that since 2011, the federal government has been referring to a disturbance to non-disturbance ratio as the model for caribou plan development. The model is to maintain 65 per cent of habitat in an undisturbed state across all population ranges.

“There’s a lot more going on,” he says. “To say disturbance is the singular factor in population decline is an oversimplification.”

In some areas of the country, caribou populations are stable, while some herds in areas with no industrial activity are in decline.

In this very complex situation, FPAC is asking that the provinces and federal government make decisions that take into account local differences, with local input, with the best available information. The industry also wants all the different factors related to declining caribou populations considered: nutrition, climate change, predator/prey relationships and disturbances.

According to FPAC, with climate change, there are changes in caribou habitat, food supply and predator/prey relationships, and caribou herds are exposed to new pathogens and disease.

“We also expect the government to do a socio-economic review before making a decision,” Nighbor says.

“We need to get this right the first time,” he states. “There is no one among our members that doesn’t care for caribou, but we want a path that reasonably supports caribou. We will not support measures that are very narrowly built.”

Why caribou, why now?

The boreal population of woodland caribou has been listed as threatened since 2003. A recovery strategy published in 2012 under the Species at Risk Act called upon provinces and territories to develop range plans within three to five years (that is, by October 2017) to demonstrate how they will protect the species’ critical habitat under their jurisdiction.

Range plans are expected to be submitted to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in the next few weeks. If the recovery plans are deemed insufficient or if the Minister determines that any portion of critical habitat is unprotected, steps will be taken to protect critical habitat and a report outlining those steps will be published by April 2018.

“This is the first truly national test of the federal Species at Risk legislation. That’s why it’s important to get it right,” Nighbor explains. The government response to the caribou situation could be precedent-setting.

FPAC is concerned that local factors and non-human disturbances to caribou habitat need to be considered in recovery planning.

One positive step toward making science-based decisions is the establishment of a National Boreal Caribou Knowledge Consortium, led by the federal government. This group will enable governments, Indigenous peoples, and stakeholders to address key knowledge gaps, regularly share information and lessons learned, and to undertake studies to support boreal caribou recovery. In addition, the federal government is leading several research projects in collaboration with key partners.