Saving the endangered caribou
Last Updated June 15, 2007
Caribou have been a crucial food source for Canada's northern indigenous people from time immemorial. But their population is dwindling at an alarming rate, in no small part because of improved hunting equipment — including snowmobiles — as well as exploration work for oil and gas reserves and arctic diamond mines. And now, the slow, relentless escalation of global warming is taking its toll.
It is global warming that is threatening a caribou herd known as the Peary caribou, which inhabit the islands of the High Arctic at the southern end of Ellesmere Island.
Canada's most northerly caribou may end up on the endangered species list, despite objections from the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board. In a recent letter to the board, Environment Minister John Baird said his department is moving ahead with plans to list the Peary caribou of the High Arctic as a species at risk.
Population estimates conducted during the 1970s pegged Peary caribou numbers at 50,000. Current counts suggest about 8,000 exist today, although Inuit hunters have disputed these numbers.
The Government of Nunavut has tried to develop a management plan for Peary caribou, but hunters from Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord have so far rejected the plan, which they say sets total allowable harvests for some Peary caribou populations that are too low for hunters. Resolute's hunters also say they have voluntarily limited the hunt for Peary caribou for years.
Unusually warm weather in recent years has led to an increase in freezing rain, which coats the tundra with a layer of ice. Unable to break through this surface to eat the vegetation beneath, large numbers of Peary caribou have starved.
Caribou summit in Inuvik
A summit meeting in early 2007 in Inuvik, at the northern tip of the Northwest Territories on the Beaufort Sea, focused on what can be done to protect several caribou herds in northern Canada. The government of the Northwest Territories organized the summit, which attracted hunters, outfitters, scientists and government leaders.
One of the best-known caribou herds is the Porcupine herd, with its delicate calving grounds on the northern edge of Alaska, a prime area for oil and gas exploration. The caribou in this herd, said to number 123,000, make the annual trek from northern Canada to the Alaskan calving grounds, as they have for thousands of years.
The Porcupine herd earned some renown a few years ago when it became one of the themes of an edition of the popular TV show The West Wing.
Susan Fleck, director of wildlife with the government of the Northwest Territories, was one of the experts who appeared at what was called "the caribou summit" in Inuvik. Noting a recent sharp decline in caribou, Fleck said there was a similar decline 50 years ago, when the government had to bring in reindeer to feed northerners who depend on the caribou to feed their families (as well as for clothing).
"In the late 1990s, we started documenting a decline and the surveys we have done now show a 70 per cent decline in most of the herds," Fleck said. "The information we get from hunters out there is that the calves haven't been surviving as well. They've been in poor condition and the pregnancy rates haven't been as high."
Winter roads, snowmobiles
Fleck says the latest decline in caribou numbers is worse now than it was during the decline 50 years ago when there were no winter roads, snow machines were not as powerful, caribou were not hunted by airplane and the animals didn't wear satellite collars that make the hunting much easier.
There are four subspecies of caribou in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut:
- Barren-ground caribou are the most numerous, with a population across the North estimated to be 1.5 million.
- Woodland caribou include Boreal caribou that live in forests east of the Mackenzie Mountains and do not migrate.
- Peary caribou range across the North and are prevalent in the new territory of Nunavut, where they tend to have white coats.
- Grant's caribou mainly dwell in Alaska and northern Yukon.
The Barren-ground caribou consist of five main herds — Cape Bathurst, Bathurst, Bluenose East, Bluenose West, and Porcupine.
Twenty years ago, the Bathurst caribou herd numbered some 500,000, but in 2006 that number had declined to about 128,000.
The Cape Bathurst herd (distinct from the Bathurst herd) numbered 17,500 in 1992, but has declined to 1,800. It is the Cape Bathurst herd that is in the path of the proposed 1,200-kilometre Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, which would carry natural gas from the Beaufort Delta region to northern Alberta.
During the Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry hearings in the 1970s, evidence was presented that explained how vital caribou herds are to the life of northerners. Expert witnesses, including archeologists, anthropologists and paleontologists, described to Judge Thomas Berger, head of the inquiry, how thousands of years ago aboriginals built elaborate "caribou corrals" to feed their families.
If you fly over Old Crow Flats in the northern Yukon you can still see the remains of these mammoth man-made structures designed to capture migrating caribou. The walls were made of logs and stood higher than the caribou, which entered the corrals at their widest point, said to be five kilometres across. The walls gradually narrowed until the caribou were trapped, proving a convenient bin of live meat, enough to feed dozens of families over the long Yukon winters.
What impressed the archeologists, anthropologists and paleontologists was that some of the logs for the corral walls had been fashioned by stone axes, suggesting the corrals may have been used in prehistoric times.