Woodland caribou in Jasper National Park. (ThartmannWiki. 2014) CC A-SA4 Woodland caribou in Jasper National Park. (ThartmannWiki. 2014) CC A-SA4

Forestry companies and conservative think tanks have spent years obscuring the truth linking their industry’s actions and the rapid decline of threatened boreal caribou populations across the country.

Research published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Wildlife Bulletin Review from Ontario Nature’s Julee Boan and analysts from the universities of Toronto, Guelph and Lakehead suggests Canada’s forest industry has shown “willful ignorance disguised as skepticism” about the noted decline in caribou populations across Canada.

“The relationship between increasing levels of disturbance (i.e., habitat loss and fragmentation) and boreal caribou population decline is well-established, with industrial forestry and associated roads shown as a key driver,” the report states.

‘Manufactured uncertainty’

But this study isn’t about linking forestry to caribou habitat destruction. It’s about exploring the ways in which the sector and its friends in conservative think-tanks and media have warped the scientific consensus on caribou decline in the public eye to bolster their bottom line.

Despite caribou being protected under federal, provincial, and territorial legislation, protests from forestry companies to change their logging practices have “successfully delayed efforts to effectively address the decline of boreal caribou,” the authors note, “inhibit[ing] meaningful dialogue about socially acceptable conservation solutions.”

“If you can convince people that there isn't a problem, and if there is, you aren't responsible, then you might also convince them that nothing new needs to be done."

This “manufactured uncertainty” has many disturbing parallels with how fossil fuel companies, well aware of the risks posed by climate change to the planet and their role in rising global temperatures, funded decades of denial to delay action by policy makers and blunt arguments from the public that something must be done.

As detailed in the study, the sector has employed everything from denying the problem exists and vilifying their critics to rejecting any connection between the industry and caribou loss, all to stymie environmentalist and academic efforts to protect vulnerable caribou herds. When all else fails, companies have often suggested saving dwindling caribou herds is simply too costly.

To take just one example, in letters to the editor and in industry literature, many within the sector have claimed caribou populations are “healthier” in heavily logged areas than in natural habitat. Others suggest more caribou calves are born in logged areas than elsewhere, arguing any declines in population are due to “variables in their habitat” and not its destruction.

Caribou populations shrinking Canada-wide

But make no mistake — caribou populations are dropping across the country. The latest available data from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada shows that 81 per cent of caribou herds are shrinking. Forty per cent of their range in British Columbia has disappeared, rising to 50 per cent in Ontario and 60 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta. Nearly half of 13 herds in the southern Rocky Mountains have less than 50 individual caribou remaining, suggesting their long-term survival is in serious doubt.

Lead author Boan, who lives in Thunder Bay and heads up boreal programming for Ontario Nature (full disclosure: I am a volunteer member-at-large on Ontario Nature’s board of directors), has witnessed industry efforts to muddy the waters over boreal caribou decline for two decades.

“If you can convince people that there isn't a problem, and if there is, you aren't responsible, then you might also convince them that nothing new needs to be done,” Boan said of the forest industry in the National Observer.

(Despite repeated efforts by the Observer to obtain a response to the paper’s troubling conclusions from Ontario Forest Industries Association or the Forest Products Association of Canada, both organizations refused to comment.)

The authors aren’t blind to the impacts that curtailing some of the sector’s more damaging practices can have on northern communities dependent on resource extraction. But they make the case that any approach by industry to pit northerners against southerners, portrayed as dreamy-eyed environmentalists keen on nothing but the destruction of resource-sector jobs, ignores the very real economic concerns facing remote communities.

“Environmental organizations seeking to protect habitat for boreal caribou and other species are blamed for economic hardship,” they write, though their analysis suggests this rhetoric linking job loss to environment action has been significantly inflated.

“Caribou play an important role in forest ecosystems,” notes iminent Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki on his blog. “With all we know about the animals and how to protect them, we must resist industry’s false narrative.”

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.

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