The complicated relationship between the provincial government and woodland caribou conservation

While the state of environment report outlines initiatives to protect threatened species, not all government departments are always so helpful

Wikimedia Commons photo.

A key issue outlined in the province’s State of the Environment report is the decline of the woodland caribou.

The species is listed as threatened by the federal government, which has mandated that all provinces bring forward a plan to maintain and restore populations of the iconic animal.

What’s so important about the caribou?

It is iconic in the truest definition of the word — that’s the animal pictured on the back of the Canadian quarter.

“They’re important from a cultural perspective,” Assistant deputy minister of environment Kevin Murphy said in Prince Albert last week.

He denied though, that it’s an important food source for First Nations. That, he said, is a trait of a different species, the barren ground caribou, which is also beginning to see its population decline.

But that’s not the animal’s only significance.

“Caribou are an indicator species that help represent the overall condition of ecosystem health and ecological integrity,” the province wrote in its State of the Environment report.

That’s a position many advocates for caribou conservation take. That includes the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). The Saskatchewan chapter actively takes interest in raising awareness and promoting the preservation of woodland caribou.

“This decline is important, or in my words, concerning, because they are the best indicator of ecosystem health,” said Gord Vaadeland, the CPAWS-Saskatchewan executive director.

“If our caribou populations are declining or disappearing, this is a signal to us that other species are likely to follow.”

Vaadeland also took issue with the claim that the animal isn’t a traditional food source. He said that, from his discussions with Indigenous people, they once were, but many have switched over to more abundant food sources such as deer and moose.

“To say Woodland caribou is not a traditional food source to Indigenous people is like saying bison aren’t a traditional food source,” he said. “Many Indigenous people no longer eat bison either, but that is because there aren’t enough of them.”

A source who works on conservation with the Prince Albert Grand Council declined to comment as he wasn’t permitted to speak to the media.

Protecting caribou habitat can be good for the overall ecosystem, too. Murphy indicated that some of the steps the ministry of environment is taking, such as reducing linear disturbances that break up the forest, can have other, positive, ecological effects.

So far, Saskatchewan has been leading the pack when it comes to getting some of the key elements associated with recovery going, Vaadeland said. That includes range planning, some of which is done, and some of which is still underway.

CPAWS is part of that process, helping to move things along.

“Saskatchewan has been ahead of other provinces in getting some of the key elements associated with recovery going,” Vaadeland said.

“That said, just like all provinces, they’ve missed almost all legal deadlines for this … they just haven’t missed them by much.”

The province, though, has yet to actually protect a single hectare of caribou habitat, Vaadeland acknowledged. Right now, everything is in the planning stage.

“I think the province views it as a concerning issue, but the reason for the concern varies depending on which Ministry you are speaking to. I think the concern of the Ministry of Environment is pretty genuine. They are concerned about the species and want to do something. Other Ministries may be concerned because they view this all more as an economic threat or problem. “

‘We’re talking about a subspecies’

While elements of the Ministry of Environment may care, why they do seems to be for different reasons.

Even Murphy, who did speak about the importance of restoring caribou habitat, seemed lukewarm to the idea.

Partway through his speech outlining the environmental report, he stopped to make a comment.

“I’m rolling my eyes right now because we’re talking about a subspecies,” he said.

“The staff who know me know that this is a particular bugbear for me. We won’t go down the rabbit hole today.”

He spoke again about caribou after his speech.

“You heard me perhaps rolling my eyes about the designation of caribou (as threatened) from a wildlife perspective,” he said while answering a question about the use of woodland caribou as a food source.

“Most Indigenous communities rely on what’s called barren ground caribou… woodland caribou, it’s our understanding, are less utilized.”

The protection of caribou may come from economic fears. If the federal government believes the province isn’t doing enough to protect a threatened species, it has the authority to impose its own plan, which could lead to adverse effects on the industry.

The province acknowledges as much in its own report. One sentence after acknowledging the species’ status as an ecological indicator, it states, “Due to woodland caribou being ranked nationally as a threatened species, allowing further decline of either the population or its habitat could result in emergency orders that would have a significant effect on Saskatchewan’s northern industrial sectors.”

Whatever their attitude towards the species, the Ministry of Environment is taking steps to address concerns associated with population decline.

The ministry is working hard to reduce linear disturbance, restore and protect habitat and develop range plans that seek to understand caribou populations and outline steps to protect the species.

“I feel like the Ministry of Environment wants to do the right thing and wants to do more,” Vaadeland said.

It’s the Ministry of Energy and Resources, he says, that has been less than cooperative. He said that ministry frequently works to block any legal habitat protection. It’s a concern that has also been raised by others who have spoken to the Herald on background.

Not too late

While more work has to be done, the important thing is Saskatchewan is still in a place where it can protect the caribou.

“Saskatchewan still has a huge opportunity to save this species. While many argue it’s too late in Alberta, and I dispute that as well, no one is suggesting it’s too late in Saskatchewan. Removing linear disturbances, protecting habitat and continually improving on how we manage the forest are all key to this,” Vaadeland said.

“The province has some good initiatives in this regard. Some forest companies do as well, while others are struggling to catch up with reality. It will take all of us working together in a solutions space to get there, but we still have a very good chance of saving this species.”

That, though, requires other ministries, like the economy, to step up as well.

“If they keep throwing obstacles in the way, things could get difficult, both for caribou and economy,” Vaadeland said.

The province, despite some reservations, seems to feel the same way as well. That’s one reason it has begun tracking linear disturbances.

“Too many linear features can affect the amount and quality of habitat available for different forest species including woodland caribou, which is one of the key reasons we’re looking at this indicator,” Murphy said.

“The goal of Saskatchewan woodland caribou range plans are to achieve and maintain a self-sustaining woodland caribou population while allowing for continued economic activity. The caribou problem is because of that 65 per cent (intact caribou habitat) threshold. It’s in law. It’s a federal statute. We want to meet that while being able to continue using the forest economically.”