Toronto, Ont./ Traditional territories of several First Nations including the Williams Treaties First Nations, Huron-Wendat, the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Chippewas, and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation — The federal government has declined to step in with protections for caribou critical habitat in Ontario despite recently released documents showing that the province is failing to effectively protect this critical species. Environmental groups engaged in caribou recovery warn that continued lack of action from both governments will further imperil caribou.
In June, the federal government announced that cabinet turned down Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault’s recommendation to issue a protection order for caribou habitat in Ontario, saying that it will instead give the province until April 2024 to strengthen provincial measures to provide protections equivalent to the federal framework.
In a first, the federal government shared cabinet’s decision to delay action, and, last week, shared its assessment of whether the province’s laws and regulations were effectively protecting the species.
The Protection Assessment, which Minister Guilbeault used to support his decision to recommend a protection order, revealed that Ontario’s forest management policies fail to protect habitat on a scale that science shows is needed for caribou survival. The Protection Assessment also documents the impacts of early exploration mining, which, like forestry, is exempted from prohibitions against damaging the habitat of species at risk under the provincial Endangered Species Act.
To effectively protect caribou, Ontario must apply a limit to disturbance in forest management; track cumulative disturbance; say no to future disturbances that will surpass the ceiling set by Environment Canada and revoke the exemption for free-entry mining under its Endangered Species Act.
Environmental groups plan to scrutinize cabinet’s evaluation of Ontario’s actions in 2024 as an indicator of the federal government’s willingness to act under the Species at Risk Act when a province is failing to adequately protect an imperilled species.
Caribou were listed as a threatened species when the act was brought into force in 2006. In 2021, former Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson made a similar recommendation to protect caribou in Ontario — and cabinet failed to act.
“The federal government acknowledges that Ontario has done a poor job at aiding in caribou protections and recovery yet continues to put its faith in the province,” said Ecojustice lawyer Joshua Ginsberg. “This underscores the issue with discretionary tools under the Species at Risk Act and the need for a new nature and biodiversity law that would enshrine Canada’s biodiversity protection targets in law. Without accountability, there is no requirement to ensure that nature is properly protected.”
“It’s refreshing to see the federal government admit that Ontario’s policy regime is failing to protect caribou instead of providing cover, which it has for the past decade,” said Rachel Plotkin of the David Suzuki Foundation. “Here’s hoping that their courage stays the course until next spring, and that there can finally be movement to protect the habitat that caribou need to survive and recover.”
“Canada has made a commitment to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030. How well this government fulfils its responsibility to protect species at risk, and the forest habitats they depend on, will be part of their environmental record when Canadians choose our next federal government,” said Julee Boan, NRDC’s Boreal Partnership Manager.