As mayors across the region are banding together to counter forestry activists, a debate is heating up over whether environmental restrictions placed on the industry to preserve caribou habitat is actually backed by science.

Protecting the ranges of Ontario’s woodland caribou herds has been the justification for restrictions on forestry companies operating in the North, particularly in Cochrane District.

Those regulations are based on the idea there are two different kinds or “ecotypes” of caribou in Ontario: woodland and tundra caribou, with the woodland caribou listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act.

The Ontario Forest Industries Association (OFIA) is arguing that a recent study conducted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry raises enough questions about the validity of the two ecotype theory that the government should “hit pause” and reconsider its position before putting in place any new regulations on forestry.

At the same time, the scientist who worked on the study in questions sees the data as supporting the idea of there being two distinct ecotypes of caribou in the province.

“After reviewing MNRF data, there’s a need to ask some questions,” said OFIA president Jamie Lim. “The mayors have every reason to be concerned. Because at the end of the day, less wood means fewer jobs … If you’re going to be bringing out provincial policies that impact the timber supply dramatically, it impacts the future impacts the future economic development of Northern Ontario. This is the issue the mayors have raised.”

One of the issues raised by the OFIA from the study that was outlined in the MNRF’s 2014 State of the Woodland Caribou Report has to do with the ranges of the two different kinds of caribou. The study tracked the movements of a small sample of animals from both ecotypes with GPS collars to see where they went during the year. The results found that the ranges of both ecotypes overlapped considerably, particularly during the winter.

Christine Leduc, the OFIA’s director of forest conservation, said having overlapping ranges flies in the face of what was previously thought about the two ecotypes.

“The evidence that Ontario’s tundra and forest caribou meet the criteria for being separate ecotypes appears weak,” said Leduc. “MNRF’s radio collaring shows that different that both these ecotypes have enormous movement and their ranges overlap. The notion that there was no overlap between the groups was one of the reasons why they were separated into ecotypes.”

Dr. Bruce Pond was one of the scientists who worked on the study. He while they did find that both kinds of caribou gathered in the same areas during the winter, the two ecotypes have drastically different migrations during the rest of the year.

“We have one group that is often solitary or in small groups that do not move around that much and stay in the Boreal forest throughout the year for their entire lives,” explained Pond. “They have a strategy of dispersing at calving time to be harder to find by predators. The migratory, also known as tundra caribou, they spend part of the winter in the forest, and at calving time move northward onto the Hudson Bay lowlands to areas of lower predator density.”

That information was already known, said Pond. But what is significant from his study is that he found there are two distinct groups. One that travels very short distances during the year, and another group that migrates very far distances. There were almost no animals that travelled a medium distance; it was either one behaviour or the other.

The study also created genetic profiles of the caribou by collecting some of their fecal matter and found there was not much genetic isolation between the two populations. Coupled with the fact that there are no visible physical differences between the two ecotypes, Leduc said this is another concern about the ecotype theory that should give regulators pause.

A standard scientific definition of an ecotype is a genetically distinct population within a species that has adapted to a particular environment. Although the fecal analysis shows the woodland and tundra caribou may not be genetically distinct from each other, Pond pointed out that the definition of an ecotype under the Endangered Species Act does not require them to be.

Both the federal and provincial committees on endangered species “have determined the forest-dwelling ecotype is at risk. This is not an MNR decision. It’s these two committees of scientists who weigh the evidence and who make the decision,” explained Pond.

At the end of the day, Pond said his interpretation of the data supports the idea of there being two ecotypes of caribou — which, he said, is accepted by most people who study caribou — even though the study was not meant to address that issue.

“The work I did supports the notion that there are two ecotypes in Ontario. But to go further, it neither supports nor disputes whether they should be listed (as an at-risk species) or not. That’s a separate question that must be determined by their size, population trends and habitat quality,” said the scientist.

For her part, Lim said the OFIA is not trying to take a definitive stance one way or the other on the science. But considering the economic value of what’s at stake, its concerns and the concerns of Northeastern Ontario’s mayors should be enough for the government to stop and consider them, she added.

“I understand why the mayors are concerned, and I think we have to stop and consider the socio-economic impact of policies where there may still be tons of questions that have still not been answered,” said Lim.