The forest fires hitting Quebec could force the postponement of the publication of the caribou protection strategy. The government is not closing the door to such an option, at a time when private sector actors challenged by The duty consider that the crisis is not conducive to the presentation of this plan. Meanwhile, important habitats for the species would be engulfed in flames.
The Legault government made a commitment in August 2022 to publish its “final strategy” for the protection of woodland caribou by the end of June 2023. This commitment was also made by mutual agreement with the Trudeau government. , which had threatened last year to intervene in order to preserve the habitats essential to the survival of the threatened deer.
Officially, the Minister of the Environment, the Fight Against Climate Change, Wildlife and Parks, Benoit Charette, has not changed his mind. But the destruction caused by the hundreds of forest fires that have hit Quebec in recent weeks is causing reflection within the government.
“We are evaluating the impact of forest fires on woodland caribou habitat. It is too early to tell. For now, the filing is still scheduled for the next few weeks, but we will assess the situation when all the relevant information is available,” said Minister Charette’s office, in a written response to questions from the Duty. “Several meetings with the various stakeholders are carried out”, it was added later.
This strategy, awaited for several years by environmental groups, is supposed to impose the necessary measures to preserve the forest ecosystems essential to the survival of the caribou, which shows major declines in several regions due to the destruction of its habitat, mainly by the forestry industry.
However, this industry is hard hit by the fires in activity, which creates uncertainties for the future, underlines the president and director general of the Federation of the chambers of commerce of Quebec, Charles Milliard. “This is an exceptional situation that requires an exceptional response. The caribou’s strategy is an emergency, but at the same time, between two emergencies, you have to choose the most urgent. For me, it’s dealing with the issues of the destruction of several hectares of forest in Quebec. »
According to him, “the timing is not ideal right now” for the presentation of the caribou protection strategy. He adds in the same breath that any postponement should be limited in time. “Measures to think about forest management could be delayed for a few weeks, but it cannot be delayed for a few years”, he argues.
Same story with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Saguenay-Le Fjord. “We would understand that the government is postponing, because what matters right now is the crisis and the protection of citizens,” explains the president and CEO of the organization, Sandra Rossignol. She also believes that an assessment of the repercussions of fires on the forest industry would be welcomed in regions such as Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, Côte-Nord and Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
“It is the prerogative of the government to determine when it will unveil the caribou protection strategy,” said the Quebec Forest Industry Council, by email. Resolute Forest Products also declined to comment on the matter.
The Society for Nature and Parks of Quebec, for its part, opposes the postponement of the presentation. “The strategy will not be immediately effective. There will be a consultation period, and the ministry will have plenty of time to make the necessary adaptations in connection with the fires,” said the organization’s director of conservation, Pier-Olivier Boudreault.
Wildfires are also hitting important caribou habitat, he said. This is the case for areas located in the Pipmuacan reservoir sector, where the Innu wish to establish a protected area to preserve the last forests suitable for deer. Other fires notably destroy ecosystems in the White Mountains area, north of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean.
Forest fires have always existed in caribou habitat. But those of this year, on an unprecedented scale, are burning some of the last forests available to ensure the survival of this species in decline. And their effects are added to the disturbances caused by industrial logging, forest roads and mining activity, underlines Mr. Boudreault.
In 2019, the government decided to postpone the presentation of its strategy until 2022. In 2021, he finally decided to appoint an “independent commission” to carry out regional consultations. Faced with the possibility of federal intervention, he finally promised a rescue plan for this year.