• Photo: Liv Vors

That much at least is clear in Environment Canada’s recovery strategy for boreal caribou, a subpopulation of Woodland caribou that is listed as Threatened under the federal Species At Risk Act registry. The ministry released a draft recovery plan in late August for public review for a period of 60 days.

October 25 was to be the last day for members of the public to offer their input on the recovery strategy.

But last week, Environment Canada announced it would extend the period until Feb. 22 next year to allow more Aboriginal communities and organizations to weigh in.

This plan warrants extra time for review, as it is meant to cover the next 50 years. It reflects the time span needed to regenerate caribou habitats: to sustain boreal caribou populations, forests need to be at least 40 or 50 years old.

This map, provided by Jeff Wells, co-Author of Keeping Woodland Caribou in the Boreal Forest, proposes areas for consideration as critical habitat.

Caribou conservation requires a temporal and spatial scale that extend well beyond that of many other wildlife species, explains Jim Schaefer, one of the authors of a report on protecting caribou in boreal forests, published in July by an international panel of scientists.

“Habitat changes that occur take a couple of decades to unfold,” he says. “The sequence of events is intricate and complex: The disturbance of boreal forest habitat doesn’t cause the decline directly, but it appears to make the landscape more conducive for deer and black bears, and then increase the predation on caribou.”

The range of caribou habitat is another overwhelming factor in the struggle to balance industrial development and caribou protection. In Canada, caribou habitats range from the northeast corner of Yukon Territory to as far south as Lake Superior.

Habitat destruction is the greatest threat to the survival of boreal caribou, and industrial activities like forestry, mining and oil and gas development and hydroelectric projects are largely responsible for it.

This map, courtesy of Global Forest Watch Canada, co-identifies areas under the tenure of the Forestry Products Association of Canada that are now closed to timber harvest.

Canadian Geographic started this year with a discussion of the Boreal Forest Agreement, a historic step toward achieving harmony between environmentalists and the forestry industry in protecting boreal forests. The agreement places a logging moratorium in almost 29 million hectares of the 72 million hectares covered by the agreement.

While this step is significant, it is only one of many that need to be taken to ensure caribou have a future in Canada’s boreal forests.

“Forest plans tend to be run over five- or 10-year periods,” says Larry Innes, who leads collaborative projects with First Nations, environmental and industry groups as executive director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative. “We have to expand our thinking.”

Some provinces, like Quebec and Ontario, have legislative mechanisms better suited for long-term conservation strategies, says Innes. In Alberta, “there’s too little room to maneuver.”

“Without some very hard societal choices about energy development and resource use more generally, I can’t see us accomplishing our goals through improved mitigation practices,” says Innes.

Across the provincial North, he says, “we’re in very good shape to develop more proactive approaches to ensure caribou not only survive but thrive.”

Critics of the Species at Risk draft recovery plan, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, say allowing for the destruction of 35 percent of boreal forests to make way for industrial activities would offer only a 60 percent chance of success in caribou recovery efforts.

Another criticism is that the plan aims to restore only half of the boreal caribou herds to population levels that are self-sustaining; the remaining herds will be supported only so far as to maintain their current populations.

You can read the Environment Canada report here.