Scientists refute forest industry claims

This article by Environment North board member Julee Boan was first published in the Chronicle Journal on November 27, 2017. Julee Boan has a PhD in Forest Sciences from Lakehead University, where she studied caribou habitat regeneration in Northwestern Ontario. She currently manages Ontario Nature’s boreal program in Thunder Bay.

In an era of “alt facts,” perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised with the content on the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) new website, “cariboufacts.” It was designed to “inform” forest industry workers of the current state of caribou science and motivate them to write letters to the federal government to protect their interests. Their argument? Recovery planning for boreal caribou is moving ahead without enough information.

While it isn’t clear if the website caught the attention of forest industry workers, it certainly caught the attention of scientists. In a fairly unprecedented move, some of the most prominent caribou scientists in Canada submitted a point-by-point rebuttal of FPAC’s website. While it now appears FPAC has since made changes to their website (the sufficiency of which have yet to be determined), the damage is already done. Forestry workers who submitted letters to government did so with misleading, and in some cases, incorrect information. Moreover, it appears that the Northern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) didn’t get the memo. In recent northern media, the association is choosing to double down on inaccurate industry talking points rather than take the warning of scientists seriously (e.g., “Northern Ontario municipal leaders refute caribou claims”).

Our communities deserve better. It’s important for all of us to hear what actual scientists are saying. Here are some key points:

• More habitat disturbance leads to higher risk of boreal caribou population decline. While numerous factors are contributing to declining caribou populations — including climate change, predation and disease — a main driver is the combination of human-caused and natural disturbances in their habitats. According to these scientists, effective protection of caribou’s critical habitat requires a minimum of 65 per cent of a caribou range to be “undisturbed” to achieve a 60 per cent probability of caribou persistence. This means we must maintain industrial logging and other disturbances below this management threshold to give caribou a decent chance of survival. Flexibility is possible but decisions to use an alternative limit must be supported by “strong evidence, validated by Environment Canada, from population data collected over an extended period of time.”

• Climate change doesn’t explain caribou decline that has already taken place. Human-caused climate change represents a new and increasing threat for caribou. However, according to the scientists, there is little evidence to suggest that climate change brought caribou populations to their current threatened condition. And any debate should not detract focus from dealing with the impact of widespread industrial development across the ranges of many populations of boreal caribou. Importantly, habitat loss and fragmentation will no doubt make them more vulnerable to climate change in the future.

• Limits to industrial disturbance must be enforced if caribou are to have a chance of survival. In Ontario, there are some limited data showing that caribou use 40-year-old harvested areas that have regenerated. Yet, overall disturbance remains high in these ranges, and there is no evidence of real use of these areas that would suggest population recovery.

There are no research results that point to an alternative to managing disturbance levels within ranges as the best insurance against population decline and extirpation. On the contrary — today, high agreement among studies on the negative effects of disturbance on caribou continues to hold true.

Scientific knowledge is always evolving, and management approaches must be adapted when changes are supported by scientific research. For boreal caribou, the best available science states that the province needs to limit industrial expansion where the management threshold has been exceeded and caribou are declining. That is the crux of this issue. The need to limit habitat disturbance is supported by science. “Activists” will continue to question the sustainability of current forest management if the province fails to enforce these limits.

To read the original caribou scientists’ letter: click here