Quebec’s Chief Forester, an independent body appointed by the government to provide oversight and direction to the province’s forestry industry, released an alarming report last week showing that the future of woodland caribou in the province looks dire. The new report based on government data and maps reveals the weaknesses in the province’s current recovery strategy for caribou. It highlights the urgent need to protect the last sanctuaries of this endangered species, including the “Montagnes Blanches” Endangered Forest in the northern Lac St-Jean region.

Without adequate safeguards put in place by the forest industry or the provincial governments, the woodland caribou, both a threatened species and a health indicator for the boreal forest, has lost much of its critical habitat in the past decades of advancing cuts and roads.

The Chief Forester reveals planned logging and roadbuilding activities, already approved by the Ministry of Forests, Fauna and Parks will further degrade the habitat of the species and threaten their survival.

Forests in the Saguenay – Lac St-Jean region greatly degraded

An article appearing in the Journal de Montreal last week revealed that close to 200 000 hectares of forest north of Lac St-Jean, in the heart of the "Montagnes Blanches" Endangered Forest, are slated to be cut this year. Yet, the Chief Forester points out in his report that the rate of industrial disturbance, primarily by the logging industry, in the Saguenay – Lac St-Jean region is far greater than in other areas of the Boreal forest. According to independent scientists, disturbances, such as logging and road construction, should not exceed 35% of the caribou herd's range. However, more than 92% of the woodland caribou habitat in this region has already been degraded to levels that no longer support the species. In comparison, 76% of original caribou habitat in the Nord-du-Québec region and 41% in the  Côte-Nord region have been degraded to the point where these areas can no longer maintain the species (p. 14).

The recent observations by the Chief Forester in the Saguenay – Lac St-Jean region support the findings of independent Forest Stewardship Council auditors who suspended two important FSC certificates from Resolute Forest Products, on January 1, 2014, due to elevated levels of forest disturbance, fragmentation of remaining intact forests and inadequate plans for safeguarding woodland caribou habitat. FSC certification is an important marketing tool for forest products and a requirement for doing business with many large customers in Canada, the United States and globally.

“We observe that the current management strategies will provoke, in the long run, a decrease in the remaining habitat where caribou self-sufficiency is still possible, despite existing management measures (e.g. protected areas, woodland caribou management plans, ecosystem approach).” Chief Forester’s report, p. 19.

Alarming forecast

In addition to the present perilous situation for the caribou, the report details that upcoming forest management plans put into question the survival of the species in Quebec’s boreal forest.

In fact, if nothing is done to save the intact forests so important to the caribou, only 9% of the existing caribou habitat will be sufficiently intact for their needs at the end of the century (p. 17). Despite existing recovery plans, models predict the complete disappearance of favorable caribou habitat within the next few decades in the Saguenay - Lac St-Jean region.

Another worrying statistic: according to the Chief Forester’s models, the Côte-Nord region, where at present half of the territory is covered with forests suitable for caribou, is at risk of loosing 85% of the areas (p. 17). 

Minister Lessard must duly note this report and act

As a first reaction to the publication of the report, the Minister of Forests, Fauna and Parks, Mr. Lessard, denounced the Chief Forester, saying that “the first species to protect is the people of the community.” Yet, the role of the Chief Forester is to assist the Minister in making choices which ensure a sustainable management of public forests. Protection levels in Quebec’s managed forests remain low at around 5%. 

The Chief Forester’s report confirms scientists’ and environmental groups’ concerns and corroborates the FSC auditors’ observations. 

Significant findings from the Chief Forester’s report

  • 92% of the areas studied in the Saguenay – Lac St-Jean region are already too disturbed by logging and roads to support caribou herds in the long term. 
  • Despite existing recovery plans, models predict the complete disappearance of favorable caribou habitat within the next few decades in the Saguenay - Lac St-Jean region. 
  • In the entire woodland caribou distribution area allocated to the forestry industry and studied by the Chief Forester, 70% has already been too disturbed to sustain healthy caribou herds. According to the Chief Forester’s models, this percentage will increase to 91% in the next century if nothing is done to protect the species.

Full reference to Chief Forester's report: 

Bureau du forestier en chef. 2014. Caribou forestier – Effet des stratégies actuelles d’aménagement forestier sur les taux de perturbation de l’habitat. Avis du Forestier en chef, FEC-AVIS-03-2014, Roberval, Qc, 21 p. + annexes. http://forestierenchef.gouv.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/avis_caribou_perturbation_mai2015-pdf.pdf