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Can caribou and industry coexist?

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The economy-versus-environment debate is wrong-headed in elevating a changeable human construct to the same level or above the natural systems on which our health and well-being depend. And in many cases, it would be more accurate to characterize it as "environment versus corporate interests." Although those interests often align with economic benefits and jobs, sometimes they just mean bigger profits for company CEOs and shareholders at the expense of the common good.

When "economy" is regarded as more than just profit-taking, it can be compatible with environmental protection. With caribou conservation, there can be room for both.

Discourse around protecting caribou and their habitat has become polarized. Many industry proponents oppose the requirement that provincial and territorial governments maintain or restore boreal caribou ranges so that at least 65 per cent is undisturbed, arguing this will put jobs at risk. They often rely on exaggerated or false claims, including denying that industry is responsible for the caribou's plight or that problems even exist.

Caribou protection measures are based on research and evidence, and even so, the 65 per cent disturbance threshold only gives herds a 60 per cent chance of persistence. Boreal caribou are threatened with extinction from coast to coast to coast, their populations continuing to decline since the federal Species at Risk Act was introduced in 2002.

Caribou are an "umbrella" species. When populations are healthy, so are many other animal and plant species and the forests they share. Healthy forests provide services such as filtering water and sequestering carbon, which means protecting caribou and their habitat can safeguard water supplies and help reduce climate-altering carbon buildup in the atmosphere.

Room for Both, a new study by the David Suzuki Foundation, Alberta Wilderness Association and Ontario Nature, demonstrates that caribou conservation and industrial resource activity need not be mutually exclusive. It examines ways for caribou and industrial activity to coexist, and concludes that effective habitat restoration can create economic opportunities and help advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

The report synthesizes research from three studies on boreal caribou in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. It calls for more science-based discourse, better analytic models that take into account caribou conservation values to optimize "least cost" solutions, and recognition of the potential employment value of forest restoration. Past decisions often focused solely on the economic benefits of timber and oil and gas extraction.

Ontario Nature research found that "much of the planned wood supply in forest management units that significantly overlap boreal caribou ranges is not being logged, particularly over the past decade. This raises important questions as to why critical caribou habitat cannot be protected without causing economic hardship."

Protecting undisturbed habitat is key to ensuring caribou populations survive. Habitat restoration is also necessary but has largely been unsuccessful. Targets must be improved, forests must actually be restored rather than just "revegetated" and enforcement has to be stepped up.

According to Room for Both, "restoration in fragmented boreal caribou habitat has the potential to create and replace jobs in northern rural municipalities and First Nations." The research shows restoring habitat disturbed by seismic lines, roads and timber harvesting, among other industrial activities, can create diversified, stabler economies for resource-dependent communities.

Indigenous communities hold valuable traditional knowledge about boreal ecosystems and must have leadership roles in conservation and restoration. This could help advance reconciliation by enhancing Indigenous peoples' opportunities to get out on the land and participate in traditional livelihoods, especially where ecological degradation and destruction have limited them from doing so.

Resource companies could also benefit from proper caribou conservation. With greater worldwide demand for responsibly obtained and produced products, companies can reap marketplace rewards for responsible practices, as with FSC-certified wood products, and avoid negative financial repercussions such as boycotts and legal challenges.

It's up to governments and industry to ensure caribou survival. This means incorporating habitat protection and restoration into planning and economic modelling, basing discourse on evidence and knowledge rather than exaggeration and fear-mongering, requiring industry and government to share in restoration costs and ensuring subsidies for industry are linked to environmental performance.

We know what caribou need to survive. We know the limits to habitat disturbance. We must incorporate these into decisions around industrial activity to make room for both.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor and Writer Ian Hanington.

Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

Image: Dany Sternfeld/Flickr

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