THUNDER BAY — The Ontario and federal governments are negotiating an agreement to collaborate on measures to protect the threatened woodland caribou population.
Canada's largest environmental law charity and the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association both have big concerns about the proposal, but for very different reasons.
Ecojustice alleges that it's simply "a plan to make plans," and requires major revisions to ensure the survival of the caribou herd.
The woodland caribou is listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act and Ontario's Endangered Species Act.
The population was once widespread across most of Ontario north of Lakes Huron and Superior.
Human settlement and development caused the species' range to recede to areas generally north of Sioux Lookout, Geraldton and Cochrane.
There are also a few isolated populations farther south along the Lake Superior shoreline and islands.
A summary of the proposed inter-government collaboration was posted last month in the Environmental Registry of Ontario.
It says the measures are aimed at enhancing caribou conservation in the context of broader socio-economic interests.
"Canada and Ontario believe that the environment and economy go hand in hand and that we can ensure the survival of this iconic species while guaranteeing our continued prosperity," it states.
The agreement will take into account the mitigation of socio-economic impacts on communities and evaluate the impacts on specific sectors and projects.
These could include Indigenous community roads in the Ring of Fire region, transmission lines to northern Indigenous communities, forestry, mineral exploration and other development.
Ecojustice has seized on this, saying the draft agreement focuses on balancing and even prioritizing economic considerations, contrary to the Species at Risk Act.
In fact, it calls the plan the weakest conservation agreement in Canada, and maintains it would leave the federal government in breach of its legal obligations under that act.
In a letter to Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault, the organization says the proposal encourages the destruction of critical caribou habitat by endorsing and financing forestry practices "that have already pushed caribou ranges beyond maximum acceptable disturbance levels."
The letter points to a plan developed over 10 years ago – the Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou – which set a minimum target of 65 per cent undisturbed habitat in a caribou range in order to give the population a 60 per cent chance of being self-sustaining.
"The table of proposed conservation measures fails to even mention the established federal objectives for survival and recovery of boreal caribou," Ecojustice wrote.
That key concern puts Ecojustice at loggerheads with the views of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association.
In its own submission, NOMA says an agreement that endorses the federal definition of "self-sustaining" will potentially devastate northern Ontario's economy.
NOMA wants federal legislation to respect Ontario's species at risk frameworks, including the Crown Forest Sustainability Act and the Endangered Species Act.
It says the province already has effective legislation to protect species such as the woodland caribou while balancing other forest values, "so there is no need for further action by the federal government."
NOMA's letter calls for an update of current caribou administrative boundaries, a clear definition of legal terms such as self-sustaining, and a commitment to ensure expanded parks or protected areas don't impact the working forest landscape, wood supply to mills, and mining activities.
It's also asking for consultation with the forest industry, other directly impacted stakeholders and Indigenous communities on the details of the conservation agreement before the two governments sign it.
For its part, Ecojustice says unless the draft agreement is changed to include protections equivalent to the Species at Risk Act, it will use "all available lawful means" to uphold the federal government's obligations under the act.