Environment minister calls for emergency decree to protect Quebec caribou from 'imminent threat'

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault is recommending the adoption of an emergency decree to protect the boreal caribou in Quebec as some herds cross the "threshold of near-disappearance."

The Pipmuacan, Val-d'Or and Charlevoix woodland herds could soon be subject to federally imposed protection measures.

In a letter addressed to Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette, Guilbeault writes that he intends to recommend federal intervention to cabinet this week.

The Val-d'Or and Charlevoix herds, which currently live in captivity, each have around 10 breeding females. Over the next decade, Guilbeault says the Pipmuacan herd could also be threatened.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks during a media availability on Alberta's invocation of the Sovereignty Act over federal clean electricity regulations, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.
If Minister Steven Guilbeault's recommendation is approved by cabinet this week, the decree's final adoption has to be authorized by the Governor General. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The minister presented these results following an analysis carried out by his department over the past year, at the request of some Indigenous communities.

In his letter to Charette, Guilbeault points to the forestry industry, saying logging and the network of multi-use roads are among the activities that, to date, have "contributed most to habitat disturbance."

'Provincial government is too slow,' says conservation group

The emergency order is provided for in Section 80 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in which the minister is required to make a recommendation if they consider a species to be exposed to imminent threats to its survival or recovery. Once in effect, it can remain so for five years.

The federal government has a "legal obligation" to protect the herd, says Alice-Anne Simard, executive director of the conservation group Nature Quebec.

"The environment and biodiversity is a shared responsibility," she said.

"(Caribou) are on the brink of extinction and the federal government has to act since the provincial government is too slow in this process."

In April, the Quebec government announced a $59.5-million plan to safeguard Charlevoix's boreal caribou and the Gaspésie mountain caribou, including better protecting an area of 96 square kilometres in Mont-Vallières-de-Saint-Réal.

Simard says the province has taken some good steps but it's "nowhere near enough to really protect these herds."

"It's an impressive number but the real action that needs to be done is to protect the habitat, and especially to protect the habitat from industrial logging which is something that the provincial government is not willing to do," said Simard.

"That's why the federal government is stepping up."

Charette deplores Feds' 'relentlessness'

Charette responded to Guilbeault's letter saying he "deplores" the federal government's "relentlessness" in this file.

"Our government has announced nearly $60 million to protect caribou and their habitat," he said.

He accused the federal government of planning to intervene without knowing the socio-economic impact of such a decision on Quebec's forested regions.

"Thousands of jobs are at stake here," he said. "I call on the government of Canada to reason."

More than 70 per cent of woodland caribou habitat is disturbed in several key sectors in the south of Quebec.
Guilbeault pointed to the forestry industry, saying logging and the network of multi-use roads are among activities contributing to habitat disturbance. (Submitted by Jean-Simon Bégin)

Alain Branchaud says the federal and provincial governments should work together. He calls Guilbeault's strategy "wise" as it prioritizes three vulnerable herds.

"It's a good strategic move," said Branchaud, executive director of the Quebec chapter of Canada's Parks and Wilderness Society.

"There's an emergency to act and we hope that this move from the federal government will put some pressure on the Quebec government so that it will accelerate the development of a strategy."

In the case of caribou, any activity disturbing habitat could be affected by the decree.

Environment and Climate Change Canada outlines a maximum disturbance rate of 35 per cent in woodland caribou habitat to ensure that populations are maintained. This rate currently stands at 92 per cent in Charlevoix, reports Radio-Canada.

Guilbeault says he cannot guarantee the adoption of a decree.

If his recommendation is approved by cabinet this week, the decree's final adoption has to be authorized by the Governor General and would only be in place after that, possibly in the fall.