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Ontario not effectively protecting boreal caribou habitat: federal minister

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, February 14, 2023. Ontario is failing to effectively protect some of the critical habitat for boreal caribou, Guilbeault has warned in a letter to the province obtained by The Canadian Press. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Ontario is failing to effectively protect some of the critical habitat for boreal caribou, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has warned in a letter to the province obtained by The Canadian Press.

Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini is announcing Wednesday that the province will spend $29 million over four years to support boreal caribou habitat restoration, protection and other conservation activities, calling it the largest single investment dedicated to caribou in Ontario's history.

But Piccini told Guilbeault about the pending investment in February, and still Guilbeault expressed concerns in the letter dated March 6.

"It is my opinion, based on the information available, that some of the critical habitat for the boreal population of woodland caribou (boreal caribou) located on non-federal lands in Ontario is not effectively protected," Guilbeault wrote.

Ontario and the federal government entered into an agreement last year to protect the caribou – though environmental advocates at the time said the deal fell short because it allowed for too much logging and mining in caribou habitat.

"That's already seeing some really good work that's taking place in monitoring in priority caribou ranges," Piccini said in an interview.

"Ontario (has made a) strong commitment and to date, we haven't received matching funds from the feds, but we're certainly hopeful."

Piccini said the investment being announced Wednesday is flexible in terms of timing, to fund projects as they arise, and will help with on-the-ground habitat restoration protection, monitoring, research and looking at establishing protected areas.

Guilbeault wrote in his letter that because he has concluded the boreal caribou habitat is not effectively protected, he is required under the Species At Risk Act to recommend that a protection order be made.

That could harm industries of northern Ontario, Piccini said.

"This would have the real impact of mill closures in the forestry sector," he said.

"I would have significant concerns over decarbonization, with shared investments we've made with the federal government on electric vehicles, making Ontario a real global leader in electric vehicle manufacturing, which, of course, is going to require the critical minerals in the north."

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.

Anna Baggio, conservation director with the Wildlands League, said she is not convinced Ontario's new funding announcement will lead to greater habitat protections for caribou because the province is so keen on development in the north.

"Those would be new investments, but in the absence of actually protecting habitat, it won’t do much to stop this iconic animal from declining further," she said. 

"Ontario is good at talking and logging, talking and mining. I think it’s trying to buy time while the habitat continues to get mowed." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2023.

Allison Jones and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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