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In a deal reached five years ago under the federal Species at Risk Act, provinces agreed to report to Ottawa last week on their efforts to ensure caribou are protected and threatened herds recover. However, most provinces missed the deadline for full recovery plans.Bryan and Cherry Alexander

The federal government is warning it will impose tougher rules for resource companies working in the boreal forest unless provinces act to protect endangered caribou.

Companies involved in oil and gas, mining and forestry are facing a call from scientists and environmental groups that many threatened boreal caribou herds face extinction unless urgent action is taken to protect and restore habitat.

Industry officials, for their part, warn that regulatory uncertainty and the potential for restrictive regulations is jeopardizing investment and threatening the significant job losses in Northern and rural communities.

In a deal reached five years ago under the federal Species at Risk Act, provinces agreed to report to Ottawa last week on their efforts to ensure caribou are protected and threatened herds recover. However, most provinces missed the deadline for full recovery plans.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has until April to determine whether the provincial actions are adequate. If federal scientists determine some herds still face serious decline, Ms. McKenna must ask cabinet for an emergency protection order under which the federal government would impose its own plans.

Ottawa is reluctant to "step in front of the provinces," said Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson, Ms. McKenna's parliamentary secretary who has led the government's effort on the issue.

However, he added: "Issues of biodiversity and species at risk are important for this government.

"We do not and should not get into a situation where we are making tradeoffs between biodiversity and jobs," he said in an interview.

"What is incumbent on all of us … is to come up with creative ways that you can manage to save the caribou and ensure there are opportunities for economic development," Mr. Wilkinson said.

Mr. Wilkinson has crisscrossed the country consulting with provinces; industry; environmental groups; rural municipalities, and Indigenous communities on how to both protect the iconic species and maintain economic activity in the boreal forest.

Protection efforts are complicated by the fact that the various resource sectors face regulators from different levels of government: provinces for forestry and oil and gas exploration; the National Energy Board for oil and gas pipelines, and the Canadian Environment Assessment Agency (CEAA) for new mining projects.

Some mining projects are now being held up by CEAA, which is requiring caribou protection plans, even as the same habitats are being disturbed by logging companies and new pipelines projects.

In British Columbia, environmental approval for the HD Mining International Ltd.'s Murray River metallurgical coal mine is on hold pending completion of a caribou protection plan. Meanwhile, the National Energy Board recently approved Enbridge Inc.'s nearby Wyndwood natural gas pipeline in the absence of that provincial plan.

"We're now in this world of double standards and it's problematic for the mining industry," Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada, said.

He is eager to see the federal government and provinces conclude the caribou protection plans so industry has clear guidelines – that apply equally to all – on what is required.

However, the forestry companies are worried the governments are working on the basis of outdated scientific models that don't take into account climate change and shifting patterns of vegetation and pests in the boreal forest.

"We owe it to our workers and communities in rural Canada to make sure we are getting this right," Derek Nighbor, president of the Forest Products Association of Canada.

He said "tens of thousands" of job are at risk if governments close major caribou ranges to industrial activity. In some cases, he said, the herds are simply too far depleted to be saved, and protection plans should be for the species as a whole rather than individual herds.

Mr. Wilkinson said the government is prepared to consider additional scientific information, but added governments must act with a sense of urgency.

"It cannot be the case that we simply say we don't know everything right now and therefore we are going to do nothing," he said. "The caribou have been in decline in Canada for a long time. If we do not act soon, many of these herds will be almost irreparably in decline."

Environmental advocates argue that in some areas, industrial activity may have to be suspended to restore habitat and allow endangered herds to recover. First Nations leaders are also demanding a greater role in the effort to protect caribou, which are both sacred and central to their local economies.

In northeastern British Columbia, the Fort Nelson First Nations (FNFN) grew tired of waiting for government action and established its own mapping and habitat restoration plan. That plan could impact oil and gas exploration in the region.

Acting lands director Katherine Capot-Blanc said FNFN is hoping to work with federal and provincial governments – as well as industry – to restore caribou populations. But she said the band is also looking to establish a forestry business in the area to support their community.

"We want our members to have jobs, but we also want to practise our treaty rights to hunt caribou," she said.

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant says he is disappointed TransCanada is cancelling the Energy East pipeline project. Gallant says the project had his government’s support and was likely scrapped due to economic reasons.

The Canadian Press