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If things continue, Canada at risk of losing a national icon

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, December 6, 2016, 3:11 PM - Canada’s caribou, so iconic that you see them every time you pull a quarter from your wallet, are in dire straits.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) granted a 'threatened species' in Canada designation on the animal at a recent meeting, citing "unprecendented" population declines in some herds as caribou migration patterns are disrupted by human activity and worsening climate change impacts.

"Caribou are, sadly, very sensitive to human disturbances, and we are disturbing caribou more and more. These stressors seem to be interacting in complicated ways with rapid warming in the North,” Justina Ray, co-chair of COSEWIC’s Terrestrial Mammals Subcommittee, said in a release. "Many of the great northern caribou herds have now fallen to all-time lows, and there is cause for concern that they will not rebound in the same way they have before."

Specifically, barren-ground caribou, which make their home in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, have been assessed as threatened. The less-widespread Torngat Mountain caribou, more common in northern Quebec and Labrador, are listed as endangered.

A herd of barren-ground caribou in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba. Credit: Peter Ewins/WWF-Canada

A herd of barren-ground caribou in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba. Credit: Peter Ewins/WWF-Canada

Brandon Laforest, WWF-Canada’s senior specialist in Arctic species and ecosystems, says the designations pave the way for governments to take real action to preserve the species.

"This is basically a huge red flag, and a call to action, to do things now before the situation gets worse," Laforest told The Weather Network.

Double blow: Climate change, human impact

The wide-ranging barren-ground caribou embark on annual migrations to specific calving grounds, chosen for their suitability for raising offspring. However, in recent decades, their numbers have been on the wane. WWF-Canada says 12 of the 14 largest herds have seen their populations fall, some by as much as 98 per cent.

Laforest says fluctuations in caribou populations do occur, but the current decline comes at a time when the species are under a lot more stresses due to climate change and human activity.

As the world warms, changes in Arctic vegetation patterns can harm the herbivores’ food supply. Also a major risk: Rainfall events are expected to increase in the Arctic regions, raising the risk of freezing rain leaving much of the ground covered in ice, cutting the caribou off from food altogether.

Caribou at Ivvavik National Park. Credit: Monte Hummel/WWF-Canada

Caribou at Ivvavik National Park. Credit: Monte Hummel/WWF-Canada

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"They do this process called ‘cratering’ where they use their hooves to dig under snow to access food, but they can’t dig through thick, thick layers of ice if it forms over their food," Laforest told The Weather Network.

In Russia, two such events over a decade were recently blamed for the starvation of some 80,000 reindeer.

Human activity, specifically resource extraction, are also a major threat to the caribou, particularly if companies are allowed free reign in the region without regard to the caribou’s migration paths and calving grounds.

"Traditional knowledge and biologists agree caribou can be very sensitive to to disturbance when they’re on their calving grounds, so the threat of putting a big mining development project in the middle of a calving ground would be disastrous for a herd that’s experiencing a population low," Laforest says.

Protect caribou calving grounds, migration routes

Preserving the caribou isn’t just a matter of conservation. The animals are an economic resource, playing a vital food security role in a region infamous for high food import costs. Laforest says the herds represent an economic value of as much as $20 million for some communities. This is even aside from the traditional values that come from thousands of years of reliance on the caribou by Inuit and northern First Nations.

As for how to preserve them, Laforest says once the caribou are listed in Canada’s Species at Risk Act and critical habitats identified, concrete steps can be taken to shield them from the worst effects of human activity in the Arctic

"This will mean creating no-go zones for industry to allow the caribou a chance to rebound by giving them the full reproductive capability, by having these calving grounds available and predictable for them," Laforest says.

He said WWF-Canada has been working with numerous northern groups to help identify areas to be protected, particularly in Nunavut, as early as the coming year. The territorial government is also in the final stages of a land-use plan which would designate certain areas as protected.

"We can talk about reducing emissions and trying to control the effects of climate change, but if we’re talking about on-the-ground action to help barren-ground caribou, it’s well agreed that protecting calving grounds is the most accessible, and the first thing we should be talking about," he says.


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