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We’re failing our most vulnerable species

By: | January 6, 2015

And, in the case of endangered species, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Douglas Ballam
The Green Space examines issues affecting the natural world we live in, with an in-depth focus on Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Independent file photo.

Overlooking the still-shattered battlefield of Beaumont Hamel, stands a proud caribou bellowing defiance. Five of these statues mark key battles of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War, a tragedy of such colossal proportions that the ramifications still echo in today’s geopolitical landscape.

That the caribou was selected as the symbol of the regiment more than 100 years ago is not surprising. Indeed, caribou symbols are so prevalent in Newfoundland and Labrador society that they have become almost invisible. But, if you think about it, you can no doubt recall the names of at least three businesses, clubs or other organizations that feature the caribou in their name, logo or coat of arms.

Long has the day passed when a large portion of our population actually relied on caribou for sustenance, but the noble-looking animal still permeates our culture. And they are not doing well.

On Dec. 16, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) released a damning report on the state of caribou populations across Canada. Only 30 per cent, or 17 of 57 herds, are considered self-sustaining. This should not be news to us; in our own province, the once gargantuan population of the George River caribou herd has been reduced to a remnant of a remnant. In short, the herd has declined from between 700,000 and 800,000 animals in the 1980s to less than 15,000 today. If we faced the same decline in humans in our province, there would be less than 11,000 of us left. Something clearly needs to be done. While the federal and provincial governments have taken the first steps, that’s about all they’ve done.

Most of the woodland caribou populations in Canada have been listed under the federal Species at Risk Act and mirror provincial legislation. They join 501 other species, from the tiny Long’s Braya on the Great Northern Peninsula to one of my favorite animals, the Little Brown Bat.

As an aside, there are many reasons why these little bats are among my favorite animals. For one, their breeding cycle is fascinating. In the summer, the males and females go their separate ways. The females band together in colonies to communally raise their pups while the males, selfish creatures that they are, go gallivanting off on their own. In August, the two meet up again on the way to their as-of-yet undiscovered winter hibernating areas. Nature takes its course but female bats are able to delay impregnation until the spring, when they start the process once again. Anyway, these bats have suffered a decline similar to the George River caribou herd (94 per cent), but theirs is due to a fungal infection imported from Europe.

Unfortunately, the prognosis for recovery of species at risk in Canada is poor. Of all the listed species, only 14 per cent have shown any improvement. In other words, if you are unfortunate enough to make it on this list, you have an 86 per cent of the situation getting worse. If this was a medical diagnosis for one of us, we’d be making certain arrangements, I’m sure.

Like a medical diagnosis, the legislation prescribes a list of measures for recovery. Depending on the severity of the listing (e.g. threatened versus endangered), certain conservation measures are supposed to take place. Key among them is the conservation of habitat. This, perhaps, is where we are failing our vulnerable species the most. Almost seven years ago, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced, with great fanfare, the five-year Caribou Strategy. With over $15 million, the strategy was well funded and supposed to provide a scientific basis for caribou recovery.

Putting in place key conservation measures such as a science-based protected areas strategy is one of the best tools we currently have to keep many species off the endangered list.

According to the Department of Environment and Conservation’s 2014-2017 Strategic Plan, they are supposed to have “[r]eleased conclusions of the Newfoundland Caribou Strategy initiative and responded to recommendations” by March 31, 2015. That gives them about three months (and even then, that’s about two years late). To give the current provincial administration some credit, they did leave a nice proportion of our landscape intact from forestry activities. But honestly, there seem to be few takers for that resource today anyway.

What’s even later—by more than 20 years—is the release of the provincial protected areas strategy. What does this, you say, have to do with caribou or other species at risk recovery? Well, as any doctor would tell you, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Not smoking, eating healthy and exercising regularly are all activities that we need to incorporate into our lifestyles to help us lead long and productive lives (advice that I seem to never be able to take to heart).

The same goes for our wildlife populations. Protecting large, representative samples of our different landscapes and habitats is a key component to maintaining healthy wildlife populations. Don’t get me wrong — just as slim, non-smoking joggers can drop dead suddenly, all the preventive measures in the world cannot prevent the decline of some species (e.g. Little Brown Bat). But the fact remains that putting in place key conservation measures such as a science-based protected areas strategy is one of the best tools we currently have to keep many species off the endangered list. As we’ve seen: once you get there, the prognosis is not good.

So, I have two wishes for our hapless current administration, if it is considering New Year’s resolutions with respect to environment and conservation. Please release the long-forgotten protected areas strategy for public review and make sure you release and act on the late Caribou Strategy as soon as possible.

It would be horrifyingly ironic if the only caribou we had left were those noble statues that commemorate our long-fallen war dead.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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