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Environmental groups rip new caribou protection deal between Ontario and Ottawa

A caribou is seen on the Slate Islands in Lake Superior in 2006 in this handout photo received April 28, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ted Simonett/Wildlands League **MANDATORY CREDIT**

A new five-year deal between the federal government and Ontario designed to protect the province's beleaguered caribou is a "spectacular failure" to the species, environmental groups say.

Ottawa and the province reached the agreement last week, with both describing it as "key to managing the caribou recovery" that also takes into account the economy.

But several environmental groups say they are devastated with the new deal.

The Wildlands League, the David Suzuki Foundation and Ontario Nature said the recently reached agreement encourages clearing tracts of forest that are part of the boreal caribou's habitat.

"It's a spectacular failure," said Anna Baggio, conservation director with Wildlands League.

"This agreement enshrines more destruction of habitat."

She said the deal does nothing to ensure logging and mining is curtailed in the caribou's range in northern Ontario.

Boreal caribou are a threatened species both federally, under the Species at Risk Act, and in Ontario under the Endangered Species Act.

There are roughly 5,000 caribou left in the province, the federal and provincial governments said.

There is also small, isolated population along the coast and several islands of Lake Superior. 

In 2019, the province, Michipicoten First Nation and several environmentalists helped move a small number of caribou onto different islands on the lake in an effort to save that population.

Several wolves managed to get onto Michipicoten Island when the water froze and created an ice bridge in 2014. The wolves wound up killing and eating most of the caribou over the next few years. Those wolves were relocated to Isle Royale on the American side of Lake Superior.

"It's shocking," Julee Boan of Ontario Nature said about the deal in a statement. 

"This agreement doesn’t just delay restoring caribou habitat, it greenlights more habitat destruction."

The David Suzuki Foundation accused federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault of prioritizing relations with the Ontario government over safeguarding habitat.

"We've seen minister after minister, and bureaucrat after bureaucrat wait for Ontario to do the right thing instead of taking action," said Rachel Plotkin of the David Suzuki Foundation in a statement.

"The sad thing is, after all this waiting, the province is still advancing a policy landscape that furthers habitat destruction."

The province's Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The agreement "provides a framework that commits both governments to establishing and implementing conservation measures necessary to maintain and recover self-sustaining populations of boreal caribou in the province," reads the decision of the deal posted to the provincial government's website.

The decision also notes the caribou's range "also provides many valuable natural resources to the forest and mineral exploration and mining sectors."

"While the main goal of this agreement is to sustain or improve the environmental conditions necessary for the recovery of the boreal caribou, Ontario and Canada recognize that achieving boreal caribou protection and recovery will consider social and economic factors in concert with the conservation measures," the decision said.

Environmental groups said the deal is at odds with federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault's threats to unilaterally implement tougher protections for caribou in Quebec.

Quebec officials from the premier to the forestry minister have said it's an overstep by the federal government and would cost jobs.

Environment and Climate Change Canada said Thursday the deal with Ontario "does not prevent the minister from using his authority" under the Species at Risk Act.

"The parties to the agreements will be held accountable, and will demonstrate progress on the implementation of conservation actions outlined in the conservation agreement, through public reporting," the ministry said in a statement.

Guilbeault said the deal is a "significant first step to ensuring the sustainability"

"It includes significant new commitments around habitat restoration activities, increasing habitat conservation areas, better evidence-based decision-making, monitoring and reporting, and stakeholder collaboration, backed by a shared investment of $10 million for 2022-2023," he said. 

"We have been clear that more conservation work and added funding will be needed in the future to guarantee the successful recovery of the caribou."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2022.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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