The Long Road to Protecting Critical Habitat for Species at Risk: The Case of Southern Mountain Woodland Caribou

Eric Palm
Shaun Fluker
Holly Nesbitt
Aerin Jacob
Mark Hebblewhite
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Identifying habitat that is essential to the recovery of species at risk, known as critical habitat, is a major focus of species at risk legislation, yet there has been little research on the degree to which these areas are protected. Here, we first review the provisions for protecting critical habitat on non-federal lands within Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA). Next, we use the declining southern mountain population of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in British Columbia, Canada as a case study to show that identification of critical habitat does not guarantee its protection on non-federal lands. Our analyses show that 909 km2 of critical habitat identified on provincial lands were logged in 5 years after it was legally identified under SARA. Existing provincial legislation and policies have provided incomplete protection of caribou critical habitat, and Canada's federal government has yet to exercise authority under SARA that could protect these areas. In the absence of nondiscretionary protection under provincial legislation, a combination of alternative mechanisms, involving all levels of government, Indigenous people, and industry, will be essential to protect critical habitat and help recover species at risk.