MONTREAL — The governments of Canada and Quebec said Monday they reached an agreement in principle to protect endangered caribou in the province, but Indigenous and environmental groups said concrete action is needed.
The two governments said in a joint news release that Quebec is working to ensure that 65 per cent of the caribou's habitat in two parts of the province is "undisturbed." That would increase protection from the current level of between 30 per cent and 35 per cent, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said in an interview.
Guilbeault warned Quebec in April that Ottawa would act unilaterally to protect the at-risk woodland caribou, after the province failed to present what he considered an acceptable conservation plan.
"I am very pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with the Quebec government. From the beginning, I have always said that my preference was to reach an agreement rather than to adopt a federal decree," he said.
The governments said that Indigenous people will be involved in the caribou protection plan, but Ghislain Picard, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, said that while he's pleased the governments are making progress on caribou protection, he doesn't yet know how they plan to involve First Nations.
"It's good news, but at the same time, I'm very interested in finding out what this agreement, if there is one, contains," he said in an interview Monday. "Obviously, they spoke to one another in our absence, and so I'm very interested in finding out from them what the next steps are."
The governments said that Quebec has begun implementing short-term measures at a cost of $12 million to protect the caribou and that Ottawa will provide $6.1 million. Those amounts will be increased once the final agreement is reached, Guilbeault said.
A Quebec environment group, the Société pour la nature et les parcs, said it's also waiting to see the details of the plan.
"It's a good thing to see the two levels of government announce that they'll work together to find solutions to a very complex conservation issue," Alain Branchaud, the group's executive director, said in an interview Monday. "However, there's no concrete action in this announcement and, in that sense, we're still in this strategy of not acting concretely on the ground to put protection measures in place."
Branchaud said that as a first step, 35,000 square kilometres of caribou habitat needs to be protected, including large areas and corridors to allow populations to travel between those areas.
However, protecting that land is complex, he said, because it's also used for forestry and some of it is being prospected by mining companies.
While there are between 5,500 and 6,500 individual woodland caribou in Quebec, some populations are more threatened than others, he said. "If we're serious in our desire to protect the woodland caribou, we absolutely have to act quickly."
Another type of caribou, which lives in the province's Gaspé Peninsula, is even more at risk — the only caribou population south of the St-Lawrence River is down to its last 35 individuals, Branchaud said.
Quebec said it plans to release its full caribou protection strategy by the end of June 2023.
The woodland caribou, also known as the boreal caribou, is considered "threatened" by the federal government and "vulnerable" by Quebec.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 22, 2022.
— with files from Stéphane Blais.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press