Measures proposed by Quebec's government to help protect its dwindling caribou herds won't make a difference in the short term, say biologists, who cite a lack of willpower to create protected areas for the species.
There are currently only 5,252 woodland or mountain caribou left in Quebec. Only seven remain in Val-d'Or. Herds in Charlevoix and the Gaspé — with 16 and 35 caribou, respectively — are also on the verge of extinction.
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault had previously sent an ultimatum to the Legault government, requesting all information concerning measures to protect Quebec's caribou and their habitat by April 20.
However, Radio-Canada has learned that the Quebec plan wasn't sent until mid-June and was found lacking by the federal government.
Without a sufficient plan, Guilbeault had threatened to use a decree to impose measures under the Species at Risk Act. The provision has never been used in Canada, and once in effect, can remain in effect for five years.
The federal government would theoretically take over about 35,000 square kilometres, or 2.3 per cent of Quebec's entire territory, to protect the species.
Biologists who have seen Quebec's proposed plan say that move by Ottawa may be necessary, due to an unwillingness to act on the part of the provincial government.
Plan won't ensure survival: expert
Radio-Canada obtained a copy of the measures proposed by the Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks (MFFP) as part of its discussions with Environment Canada.
The nine-page document proposes several measures, including dismantling certain forest roads, developing and maintaining caribou enclosures, controlling predators and monitoring the herds remotely from a distance.
Biology experts who specialize in the caribou told Radio-Canada the lack of new protected areas, which would allow the government to protect the mature forests the caribou call home, was concerning.
"It does not show clearly that we are going to protect so many square metres of woodland, so many square kilometres of forest," said Martin-Hugues St-Laurent, a professor of animal ecology at the Université du Québec à Rimouski.
St-Laurent said protecting forests is "the elephant in the room" and that until there's a real strategy for that, Quebec "isn't tackling the problem head on."
Earlier this year, the Quebec government mandated an independent commission of experts to launch a series of regional public hearings, aiming to form recommendations to "protect caribou habitats and limit the socio-economic impacts of this protection," such as the forestry industry. It is due to give its findings to the government sometime this summer.
Some caribou habitats have been severely damaged by human disturbance, notably by the presence of logging roads and logging operations.
But Quebec's plan is effectively "the status quo, carried out with very little ambition to ensure the survival and recovery of the species," St-Laurent concluded.
Quebec wants to keep jurisdiction
Quebec Premier François Legault has said that Quebec should keep its exclusive provincial jurisdiction over the management of woodland caribou.
But Alain Branchaud, general manager of the Society for Nature and Parks (SNAP Quebec), said the provincial government needs to do more to keep the feds from stepping in.
"If the government of Quebec wants to maintain its leadership in caribou protection, it must move forward with the protection of the territory and provide the necessary resources," he said.
When reached by Radio-Canada, the MFFP defended the plan, saying that each point is listed as a short-term solution, while a series of other medium- and long-term measures will be incorporated into the future habitat protection strategy.
The ministry did not comment on why there were no protected areas proposed in the document.