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Protecting the caribou: Substantial costs, questionable results

Environment and Climate Change Canada recently published a report criticizing the measures taken by the provinces to protect the boreal caribou. If Ottawa decides to intervene, it must take into account the economic costs of protection measures and the realities of each province.

“A strict application of federal requirements could be very harmful for the Ontario economy,” points out Alexandre Moreau, Public Policy Analyst at the MEI. “Around half of forestry activity in Ontario takes place in boreal caribou habitat, and could therefore be affected. This represents $2.6 billion of economic activity and some 18,300 direct jobs.”

To comply with federal standards, the provinces and territories have to limit the level of disturbance of boreal caribou habitat caused by human activity or forest fires to less than 35%.

“It is difficult to give a precise estimate of the losses that could be incurred in Ontario, but as in Quebec, a strict application of federal requirements could lead to the disappearance of thousands of jobs and to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars each year,” notes Mr. Moreau, adding that the regions of Kenora, Thunder Bay, and Cochrane would be the most seriously affected.

Moreover, even putting a complete stop to all human activity would not guarantee the survival of all the caribou. They would still be threatened by other factors like disease, insects, forest fires, and wolf predation, as well as by the modification of their habitat due to climate change.

In Quebec, the MEI has previously calculated that the cost of fully applying federal requirements could lead to the disappearance of 5,700 direct jobs and cost up to $740 million in lost economic activity, just in the forestry sector. “That’s 72 direct jobs and a total cost of over $9 million for each caribou we’re trying to save, with no guaranteed results,” says Alexandre Moreau.

“Currently, only the Quebec government has made public an exhaustive estimate of the costs associated with Ottawa’s requirements. The governments of Ontario and the other provinces should follow suit and show transparency, both in terms of the evolving number of caribou and the economic costs of habitat recovery measures,” argues Mr. Moreau.

Finally, Ottawa must also adopt a “flexible approach” that would allow the provinces and territories to set population protection targets that take into account the economic realities of each community. “It is clearly stated in the federal law that the socioeconomic aspects of communities should be considered in the elaboration and the implementation of protection measures,” concludes Mr. Moreau.

The Montreal Economic Institute is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit research and educational organization. Through its studies and its conferences, the MEI stimulates debate on public policies in Quebec and across Canada by proposing wealth-creating reforms based on market mechanisms.