Gambling with Caribou

by Maggie on October 5, 2017 - 8:26pm

     Gambling with caribou is risky business. Weighing the odds in natural resources management, the federal government is dealing with the risk of caribou extinction and criticism from the forestry industry.  Protecting the natural habitat of caribou ranges and mitigating the impacts of human activities has prompted the implementation of the caribou action plan.  To foster resilience, restrictions to industrial activity in all 51 caribou ranges are endorsed.  This is creating conflict stemming from different values, interests and cognitive understandings of the recovery strategy. 

     This article discusses Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s implementation of the caribou action plan, a program designed to restrict industrial activity to 35% in all of Canada’s 51 caribou ranges.  Various actors weigh in to support or oppose the plan.  Chief executive officer of the Forest Products Association, Derek Nighbor, argues the recovery plan will be based on incomplete science due to an October deadline for scientific feedback.  He also contends it will further impair forestry companies struggling with U.S. softwood tariffs.  Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society executive director, Eric Hebert-Daly, argues that research on the impact of human activities on caribou is steadfast. Jonathan Wilkinson, Vancouver-area Liberal MP, maintains the government must act to protect biodiversity and expects scientific feedback for provincial range plans to be completed in October, a deadline that was set five years ago.  Responding to Nighbor’s claim that the government is inflexible, Wilkinson indicates that provinces can provide an alternate deadline if extensions are required.

     The caribou action plan appears to be creating disagreements based on different understandings of the scientific research linked to the strategy.  Forestry industry representatives argue that the science justifying the restriction of industrialization in each of the caribou ranges is incomplete whereas government representatives contend that the science is consistent when it comes to the negative impact of human activities like logging on wildlife habitat.  

     Value differences may be creating another type of conflict which became apparent when Nighbor sent an appeal to McKenna requesting more flexibility with the implementation of the caribou action plan.  Both may agree that caribou should be preserved but the values that each connects to the caribou range seems to differ.  McKenna’s position signifies the ecological value of protecting wildlife habitat and biodiversity whereas Nighbor’s position reflects an emphasis on the economic value of resource extraction and employment.  Value differences may also lead to conflict involving differing interests if those opposed to the plan claim that costs and benefits are not distributed evenly.

     Resolving conflict requires mutual understanding and an appreciation of the uncertainty that exists in every natural resource management strategy.  As decision-makers strive to foster resilient ecosystems, the application of the precautionary principle offers a guiding philosophy.  Creating resilience provides the capacity for Canada’s caribou ranges to adjust to disturbances associated with human activities like logging and protects caribou populations from extinction.  When it comes to gambling with caribou, erring on the side of caution is likely the best bet.



Mitchell, B. (2015). Conflict and Uncertainty: Issues, Context, Challenges, and Opportunities. In Mitchell, B. (Eds.), Resource and Environmental Management in Canada: Addressing Conflict and Uncertainty (pp. 11-15). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.


The Globe and Mail. (2017). Canadian forestry urges Ottawa to rethink plan to protect caribou. Retrieved from

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