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A woodland caribou bull is seen in this undated handout photo. (HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A woodland caribou bull is seen in this undated handout photo. (HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Political will to save Canada’s caribou is lacking, report warns Add to ...

A year after the federal government initiated a plan to save Canada’s iconic woodland caribou, a report by two environmental groups says there are few signs of progress and urgent action is needed to prevent the demise of both the animals and the remaining intact wilderness areas where they live.

The report, called Population Critical: How are Caribou Faring and scheduled for release Tuesday, finds that most provinces and territories are lagging behind the targets set by Ottawa for protecting the species.

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Three of the jurisdictions – the Northwest Territories, Manitoba and Saskatchewan – show some signs of progress, the report says. But six others – the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador – received poor grades.

“The caribou are really the bellwether of the boreal forest,” said Éric Hébert-Daly, the national executive director of the the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which co-sponsored the report with the David Suzuki Foundation. “They require significant amounts of habitat to be able to survive. So, if they are in danger, that usually means that there is so much disturbance of their habitat that the forest itself is in danger.”

The animals are most at risk when their habitat is intersected by industrial development like roads and power lines that leave them open to predators. Scientists say local caribou herds need populations of 300 or more, and at least 65 per cent of their habitat undisturbed, to survive. But just 30 per cent of the country’s herds meet those tests.

After the woodland caribou was declared to be threatened under the terms of the Species-at-Risk Act (SARA), the federal government set a deadline of three to five years for the provinces and territories to find ways to reverse their decline. But the report says more political will is needed to put some of the provincial plans that have been devised into effect, more federal assistance is needed in terms of scientific research, there are significant gaps in legislation, and the management of predators is being conducted ineffectively.

“I would have expected better,” Mr. Hébert-Daly said. “There are some plans that have been released, or that are on the verge of release, that are not bad. But there’s no implementation of those plans as of yet. And then there are those places where there aren’t any plans at all. So we are very far away from where we need to be in the first year of this strategy.”

Protecting caribou does not mean stopping development, Mr. Hébert-Daly said. “There are places that, largely because of industry, are now not being logged because they are in sensitive critical habitat for caribou. But it is all voluntary and nothing at this point has been done by the government.”

Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson said in an e-mail Monday that the federal government has already acted to protect critical habitat in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories and Alberta and Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. The government, he said, “is currently working with the provinces and territories to develop guidance on what constitutes restored habitat following a human-caused disturbance.”

And the provinces have indicated a willingness to act. In Ontario, for instance, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Natural Resources said her ministry has been working to recover, manage and protect woodland caribou and their habitat since 2008 and had invested more than $11-million in a caribou recovery plan.

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