Though much of Quebec’s Cree territory has been flooded, razed and clearcut to make way for hydroelectric dams, herds of woodland caribou still roam throughout the Broadback Valley.

Local hunters say that the game in this small, densely forested area is noticeably richer than any other place in Quebec’s vast wilderness. Located about 1,000 kilometres north of Montreal, the Broadback Valley is also home to large moose, geese and beaver habitats.

Now a proposed logging road threatens one of the last Quebec habitats for the woodland caribou — a species that’s rapidly declining across Canada. The Matériaux Blanchet sawmill put forth its plan to cut a 126 kilometre swath south of the Broadback River at a public hearing last week in Montreal.

Environmental experts say the road would bisect the habitat of three caribou herds whose numbers are already declining. The road would link a 113,000-hectare logging camp to Matériaux Blanchet’s sawmill in Amos. Matériaux Blanchet employs about 500 people in two sawmills and is one of the province’s largest independent logging companies.

“The project doesn’t really make sense because these herds are already vulnerable, they’re not self-sustaining,” said Pier-Olivier Boudreault, a project director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “The main threat to woodland caribou is anything that disturbs their habitat. So logging camps, the presence of mining exploration, clearing paths for power lines, anything that fragments their territory will affect them … This road would only further erode their habitat.”

There are between 6,500 and 8,000 woodland caribou remaining in Quebec and their numbers have dropped by at least 30 per cent since the 1990s, according to CPAWS. The Waswanipi Cree say the caribou have sustained their life in the Boreal Forest for “time immemorial.”

“My father is what we call a tallyman of a (hereditary) trapline, he grew up in the bush as a hunter, trapper and fisherman,” said Marcel Happyjack, Chief of the Waswanipi Cree. “People still go out there because they feel happy out there, they feel at peace because that’s who they are. They still go to their traditional hunting grounds as a family to ensure that we continue the Cree way of life. They have to go out there. They have to pass on the knowledge.”

Hunting remains central to the Cree economy as many within Waswanipi are still professional trappers. Children also take a break from school in the fall to hunt moose and another one in the spring to track and cull migratory geese.

That way of life is already in jeopardy, according to Happyjack. Over 30,000 kilometres of road infrastructure infringes on traditional Waswanipi Cree territory — an area half the size of New Brunswick. About 90 per cent of that area has been affected by logging, he said.

Furthermore, Happyjack claims 59 of the community’s 62 family traplines are already affected by mining or forestry operations. As a provincial environmental assessment committee reviews the logging road proposal, Waswanipi’s best traplines are in play.

Representatives from Matériaux Blanchet say that, in building the road, they’ll do their best to preserve the forest. But they also acknowledge that laying down thousands of tonnes of gravel and cutting down vast sections of the forest will have an environmental impact.

“We’re doing the best we can to make a compromise,” said Roch Plusquellec, director of forestry operations at Matériaux Blanchet Inc. “There’s an enormous territory, protected territory, to the east and west of the road. All of the part around Lake Evans and to the north of the Broadback River is protected or will be protected. There is an enormous tract of protected land which used to be used to feed our sawmills. They’re protected now and I think that’s a compromise.”

In July the Cree Nation — a body representing the province’s 18,000 Cree people — signed an agreement with the provincial government, creating 5,000 square kilometres of newly protected areas within the Boreal Forest. However that area did not include the Waswanipi section of the Broadback Valley and environmental groups say just protecting the 5,000 square kilometre territory wouldn’t be enough to ensure the recovery of the woodland caribou herds.

The Woodland Caribou Recovery Taskforce and Greenpeace also oppose the logging road.

“We’re not saying we’re anti-development but there has to be a balance,” says Happyjack, whose father also worked in mining and forestry. “Yes people need jobs but we have to ensure the survival of the Cree way of life.”