The barren ground of Canada’s caribou heards in the North are in grave danger of disappearing. That’s the latest according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund, which says that some populations have plummeted to just 2 per cent of their former size, including the Bathurst herd of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, once numbering up to 472,000 animals and now reduced to 19,769, down from 34,690 in 2012 and 186,000 in 2003.
“The caribou grace Canada’s 25-cent coins,” says David Miller, president and CEO of WWF-Canada, “but if we don’t act soon, there’s a risk that the only place Canadians will see caribou in abundance is on the quarter.”
Climate change and industrialization of Canada’s arctic are to blame. According to the new report, warmer temperatures have made sea-ice less reliable for crossing and have increased the number of spring rains, which can freeze over and block the caribou’s access to plants and lichen, its main source of food in the winter.
As well, caribou herds are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment, which makes further industrial development in the North a problem, as even small disturbances can lead to failed reproduction, calf abandonment and mortality. This represents a significant challenge for Canada’s northern communities, says Miller, who sees the dramatic decline in barren ground caribou as one of Canada’s greatest conservation issues.
“Across the Arctic we’re seeing herds suffer dramatic declines, coinciding with new threats to their habitat. Appropriate industrial development may be helpful to the economy of Northern communities, but not at the expense of caribou,” says Miller.
Canada’s largest caribou subspecies, barren ground caribou are smaller, more compact and more lightly coloured than the boreal woodland caribou, making it more adapted to the harsh conditions of Canada’s North. The barren ground caribou range across the central and eastern regions of the Northwest Territories and much of Nunavut, migrating twice yearly and covering distances as great as 4,000 kilometres a year.
Caribou harvesting has become a contentious issue in recent years. The Northwest Territories has instituted a total ban on hunting of the Bathurst herd, except for a small number of animals used for First Nations’ ceremonial purposes. The N.W.T. government and Indigenous groups have been critical of the Nunavut government, which is still allowing for some commercial harvest of the herd, a situation that the North Slave Metis Alliance spoke out against this past summer.
“The North Slave Metis Alliance, and I think I speak for the other aboriginal organizations in the Northwest Territories, are disappointed that the Nunavut government has not respected a 100 per cent harvesting ban on the Bathurst caribou herd,” said Bill Enge, president of North Slave Metis Alliance. “They’ve been issuing harvesting cards for commercial harvesting purposes, which we find absurd.”
But the real threat to the caribou is climate change, which scientists say has already produced dramatic alterations of land and ecology in the North. “Climate change is faster and more severe in the Arctic than in most of the rest of the world,” says the WWF, noting that the Arctic is warming at twice the global average.