After two decades of government inaction, groups warn of legal action if statutory standards to protect species are not met
OTTAWA/TRADITIONAL, UNCEDED TERRITORY OF THE ALGONQUIN ANISHNAABEG PEOPLE — A new draft conservation agreement for threatened boreal caribou in Ontario is the weakest ever proposed in Canada and falls alarmingly short of meeting legal standards for habitat protection, environmental groups say. Ontario is currently undergoing a public consultation on the draft agreement with the deadline for comments on March 21.
Instead of addressing the concerns identified in the latest Auditor General of Ontario report, the agreement rubber stamps Ontario’s broken policy framework governing threatened wildlife. The draft agreement contains no commitment or targets for the protection or restoration of critical caribou habitat. Instead, it perpetuates approaches like logging and road building that have stymied the recovery of caribou, the groups say.
The agreement would formally enshrine the province’s controversial forestry policies that continue to damage and destroy more critical caribou habitat, while providing Ontario with millions that would only fund more process and delays.
Ecojustice, on behalf of Wildlands League, Ontario Nature and David Suzuki Foundation, recently warned the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault in a legal letter that if the draft conservation agreement is signed unchanged, the groups may launch legal action to bring the government into compliance with its statutory duties under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).
To date, more than 16,000 letters and messages have been sent to Minister Guibeault calling on him to stand up for Canada’s vulnerable wildlife when provinces like Ontario turn their backs on them. Under SARA, the federal government can invoke a “safety net” to protect habitat when provinces fail to effectively protect critical habitat. A safety net order allows Cabinet to extend SARA protection to species on provincial and territorial lands.
Conservation agreements with a province or territory are another tool the federal government can use to benefit a species at risk or enhance its survival in the wild. The proposed bilateral conservation agreement between Ontario and Canada was first introduced in 2019 under Section 11 of the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). The most recent version up for consultation fails to meet critical habitat thresholds required under SARA. This failure will push caribou closer to extinction in seven out of eight ranges that are already declining and that overlap with commercial forestry operations in northern Ontario.
The government’s failure to protect boreal caribou highlights a broader issue with how Canadian governments are failing to protect endangered species and preserve biodiversity. Although the federal SARA lays out critical protection measures, federally listed at-risk species populations declined by 28 per cent between 2002 and 2014. Addressing the issue of protecting boreal caribou is as much about protecting an individual species as it is about ensuring our legal frameworks can promote biodiversity and species-thriving on the whole.
Joshua Ginsberg, lawyer, Ecojustice said:
“This draft conservation agreement is yet again another instance of the Canadian and Ontario governments failing boreal caribou. It is time to take meaningful action to ensure boreal caribou habitat is protected, range plans are completed, and jurisdictional governments are held responsible for their implementation.
“We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis and the window to effect change for many vulnerable species is rapidly closing. We are facing a lack of will, not a lack of ability. In its current form, the federal SARA already gives us the tools to prevent further species decline and aid future recovery. We just need the federal government to implement these measures in a timely and effective way.”
Anna Baggio, conservation director, Wildlands League said:
“Endorsing more clearcutting, roads and other harmful industrial activities in already threatened caribou ranges is the antithesis of good conservation and goes against the federal government’s own mandate to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030. Will the federal government continue to provide cover to provinces and their destructive policies and approaches? Or will it stand up for threatened wildlife and enforce the law?”
Julee Boan, boreal program manager, Ontario Nature said:
“Caribou don’t need to be managed; we do. It’s been more than two decades of ‘planning to plan’ for caribou in Ontario, rather than simply protecting critical caribou habitat. Instead, the Government of Ontario is using public funds to subsidize logging roads that carve up the remaining habitat. I’m concerned the federal government is about to go down the same path.”
Rachel Plotkin, boreal project manager, David Suzuki Foundation said:
“This is the broken record to end all broken records. For more than twenty years, we’ve been asking Ontario to take the steps needed to maintain critical caribou habitat. They haven’t listened, and caribou have continued to decline. There are straight forward solutions at hand. But we need a government that has the courage to choose responsibility to the common good over politics and profit.”
Boreal caribou was formerly found throughout most of northern Ontario. Populations continue to retreat northward as critical caribou habitat have receded, with 40 to 50 per cent of their habitat having been lost since the 1800s. Now, the province’s caribou are mostly located north of Sioux Lookout, Geraldton, and Cochrane. A few isolated populations can be found further south along the shoreline and islands of Lake Superior. Ontario has an estimated 5,000 boreal caribou remaining. Boreal caribou are listed as “threatened” under both Ontario’s Endangered Species Act and the federal SARA.
Despite the clear benefits of protecting boreal caribou – which include the species’ cultural significance to many Indigenous groups, protecting biodiversity, and curtailing greenhouse gas emissions – both the Ontario and Canadian governments have failed for decades to take meaningful action to safeguard this federally listed species at risk.
Boreal caribou habitats such as peatlands and boreal forests store massive amounts of carbon, which would be released into the atmosphere if the land were disturbed by development.
Ecojustice filed an original petition to the minister in November, 2018 to make a s. 61 recommendation for a safety net order for two specific caribou ranges, namely the Churchill and Brightsand Ranges. This legal request was coupled with public advocacy work undertaken by Wildlands League, Ontario Nature, and David Suzuki Foundation.
After extensive pressure from environmental groups, former Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, made a recommendation to the Governor in Council under s. 61 of SARA that a protection order be created for Ontario’s boreal caribou, while stating the government would prefer to work with the province to make a conservation agreement under s. 11.
In 2021, the governments of Ontario and Canada released a bilateral proposed conservation agreement. Environmental groups have criticized the agreement, saying it falls short of the government’s legal obligations under SARA and leaves critical caribou habitats vulnerable to continued destruction. In fact, the draft agreement encourages destruction of critical habitat by endorsing and financing forestry practices that have already pushed caribou ranges beyond maximum acceptable disturbance levels.
The proposed conservation agreement can be accessed on Ontario’s Environmental Registry. Comments can be submitted directly to Environment and Climate Change Canada by email to email@example.com until March 21, 2022.