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The Quebec government has taken an unorthodox, and controversial, approach to protecting an endangered herd of woodland caribou.

The herd’s habitat is found outside the city of Val d’Or. Recently, the herd’s population has faced intense pressure from logging, hunting, and ATV’ing. These activities have increasingly encroached upon, and compromised, the habitat of the herd. Currently only 15 members of the once prolific herd remain, though caribou populations in other parts of the province appear more stable.

The Quebec government’s solution? To round up the animals and transport them to a zoo, where they will be contained in an enclosure that is four square kilometres in size.

Quebec’s woodland caribou are designated under the province’s Act Respecting Threatened or Vulnerable Species, and many populations across Canada are designated under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) as endangered, threatened, or of special concern. Environmental groups have frequently criticized governments for their lack of sufficient initiative in protecting woodland caribou as required under species at risk legislation. Recently, for example, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has brought a lawsuit against the federal Minister of the Environment and Climate change over what it believes to be the Minister’s unlawful failure to monitor the species’ habitat as required under SARA.

It is unclear what the long-term plans are for the herd, and whether their relocation to the zoo will be a temporary or permanent solution. It is equally uncertain whether this effort will set a precedent for the future management and protection of species at risk in Canada.

Some “re-wilding” efforts of threatened or extinct species have proven successful. For example, a small group of captive-bred scimitar-horned oryx was recently re-introduced into a wild reserve at the edge of the Sahara desert. That closely monitored herd appears to be growing and thriving.

Absent some kind of effort to reduce the human activities that precipitated the Quebec caribou herd’s decline—that is, without effective measures to protect and restore the herd’s habitat—the successful reintroduction of the herd to its natural home is unlikely.

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