On June 15, Ottawa announced Quebec will be granted “limited additional time” to devise a caribou protection plan due to a wildfire season that has burned over one million hectares of forest so far.

Ontario signed a similar agreement last year with the feds. In March, David Piccini, Ontario’s minister of environment, announced $29 million over five years to support habitat restoration, protection and monitoring of caribou.

Protection is more important than ever. Cumulative impacts of forestry in Quebec and forestry and mining exploration in Ontario are exacerbating the steady decline of caribou populations, a designated federal species at risk, Dave Pearce, senior forest conservation manager at the conservation organization Wildlands League, said.

Now, as wildland fire seasons lengthen and worsen in severity, the disturbance to caribou that thrive in dense, undisturbed forests is compounded with the effects of logging and mining, Pearce explained.

Dave Pearce is the senior forest conservation manager for Wildlands League. Photo submitted

“[Caribou’s] superpower is that they can live in dense, large patches of dense forests that don't have a lot of food for other animals,” he said, pointing to the caribou’s love for lichen as a food source.

Caribou have lived with wildland fire for years, but mining exploration and logging roads create vulnerable conditions for the animals by making corridors for predators like bears and wolves. Caribou are not as fast as deer and are much weaker than moose, making them more vulnerable in younger forests that emerge from logged areas or the ashes of wildland fires.

Deer and moose also prefer younger, less dense forests that provide more food sources, which leads them into caribou territory after fires to compete for food, Pearce said.

Although wolves are often painted as the caribou’s greatest enemy, Pearce doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he sees forestry practices that don’t consider the needs of caribou and don’t recognize the importance of conserving dense brush that can mitigate threats to caribou.

The caribou is seen as a marker of the biodiversity and health of the boreal forest. But industry and now worsening wildfire seasons are having cumulative impacts on the caribou, an essential food source for First Nations and Inuit. #Wildfires

However, it’s unclear how Ontario and Quebec protection efforts will materialize given the risk of damaging a northern economy dependent on forestry, and more recently, mining exploration. However, to protect caribou, a baseline of 65 per cent of undisturbed habitat is needed. It’s a target that might threaten historic forestry towns with mills that are sometimes several decades old.

The protection plans raise questions about current forestry practices that are criticized for unsustainability by researchers, as well as the risk to communities that rely on logging for their local economies. Those small towns could become casualties of the strategy, but it’s clear current forestry practices are not sustainable for caribou, prompting federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to threaten both Quebec and Ontario with invoking a critical habitat protection order through the Species at Risk Act to take over the situation for both provinces.

Two Innu First Nations in Québec who saw an early draft of the agreement last month called out the National Assembly for its proposed caribou protection plan dubbing it a “strategy for extinction,” La Presse reports.

“For the current government, the issue is not the protection of caribou, [it’s] the economy,” Gilbert Dominique, chief of Pekuakamiulnuatsh First Nation, told La Presse in French.

The caribou hold cultural and spiritual importance for the Innu, with feasts and hunts revolving around caribou harvests.

Pier-Olivier Boudreault is a biologist with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Quebec. Photo submitted

The caribou is seen as a marker for the biodiversity and health of the boreal forest, said biologist Pier-Olivier Boudreault with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Quebec.

Both Pearce and Boudreault agree that the more undisturbed protected areas each province can set aside, the better the chance caribou will have to recover and thrive.

“That’s why environmental organizations are putting so much effort on the species,” he explained. “It’s an iconic animal, but it’s really the idea that if we protect the species, we’re protecting this ecosystem.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative