Ottawa making good on pledge to unilaterally protect Quebec caribou: minister

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MONTREAL — Ottawa is moving forward with plans to unilaterally protect Quebec caribou after the province failed to meet a deadline to provide an acceptable proposal, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Thursday.

Guilbeault had given Quebec until Wednesday to submit its plan to protect the at-risk woodland caribou and their habitat.

He told reporters north of Montreal the province has yet to demonstrate it's serious about protecting the caribou, adding that the province's wildlife minister appears to be "going in the opposite direction" in some regions.

Guilbeault said there is still time for the province to avoid the decree, and his preference would be to negotiate an agreement.

"Unfortunately, the Quebec government so far has shown very little willingness to do that, which has forced me to move into the adoption of an emergency decree by cabinet," he told reporters in Laval, Que.

Guilbeault has previously said an order would cover about 35,000 square kilometres of habitat, where extra protection measures would need to be taken.

Ottawa has already reached an agreement with Alberta on caribou habitat protection, and is in discussions with Ontario and British Columbia, he added.

"If we can do all this work with other provinces, there’s no reason that we can’t find a path forward with the Quebec government — as long as the Legault government wants to negotiate with us," he said.

Quebec Premier François Legault said Wednesday that caribou protection is a provincial jurisdiction and that the province is trying to find a balance between preserving wildlife habitat and forestry jobs.

Guilbeault said Legault's statement was "erroneous," and that wildlife protection is a shared federal and provincial responsibility. The continued decline of caribou numbers shows the province isn't doing enough, he added.

"Premier Legault says we have to try to find a balance, and I agree with that," he said.

"But currently there's no balance, because according to data from scientists from the government of Quebec, scientists from the federal government, independent researchers in universities, the situation of the caribou is more and more precarious, the species is more and more threatened."

Meanwhile, the Quebec government on Thursday provided an update on its efforts to capture and fence in some of its isolated caribou herds in an effort to stop them from dying out.

Government officials said in a technical briefing that the province successfully captured 16 caribou in Charlevoix, which they believe is nearly all of the herd. Once captured, the animals were tranquilized and transported to a fenced enclosure where they will be fed and supervised from a distance.

Plans to capture pregnant females in Gaspésie, and to keep them in captivity until after they give birth, ended up being put off until next year due to delays in constructing the enclosures, weather and other holdups.

The province also built a bigger pen for the herd in Val-d'Or, Que., which was enclosed in 2020 and has just seven animals.

While fencing in the animals was billed as a temporary measure to help their numbers recover, the biologists and government officials present at the meeting said they couldn't give a timeline or criteria for when they could be released back into the wild. That will be part of a longer-term caribou protection strategy that is being developed by the government, they said.

Environmentalists have consistently denounced the Quebec government for pushing back the release of its protection plan and for forming a committee to study the issue that doesn't include a caribou expert.

Nature groups such as SNAP Quebec have accused Quebec of choosing short-term solutions such as closing in herds and shooting predators rather than protecting the old-growth forests the caribou need to survive.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2022.

— With files from Frédéric Lacroix-Couture in Laval, Que.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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