Cari­bou on the Brink

Once unimag­in­ably abun­dant, this “um­brella species” is at tremen­dous risk. What we do now and for the next few years will ei­ther save or doom this ex­tra­or­di­nary crea­ture

Canadian Wildlife - - FEATURES - By Sharon Oosthoek Pho­tos Peter Mather

Once unimag­in­ably abun­dant, this “um­brella species” is at tremen­dous risk. What we do now and for the next few years will ei­ther save or doom this ex­tra­or­di­nary crea­ture

THE STORY OF CARI­BOU IS THE STORY OF US. SOME 35,000 years ago, as early mod­ern hu­mans strug­gled to eke out an ex­is­tence in Europe, it was rein­deer — as cari­bou are known there — that sus­tained us. Arche­o­log­i­cal digs show refuse heaps dat­ing from that time made up al­most en­tirely of rein­deer bones. Be­tween 12,000 and 17,000 years ago, cari­bou was such an im­por­tant prey an­i­mal in Europe that arche­ol­o­gists call it the “Rein­deer Epoch.” Closer to home, nat­u­ral cy­cles of abun­dance and scarcity in the Ge­orge River and Leaf River herds in what is now north­ern Labrador and Que­bec led to pe­ri­odic star­va­tion among the Innu, the Cree and the Inuit.

To­day, cari­bou (Rangifer taran­dus) are still es­sen­tial for many north­ern Indige­nous peo­ples, and not only as a source of food and cloth­ing. Cari­bou play a cen­tral role in their cre­ation sto­ries, val­ues and re­la­tion­ships with the land, and have done so for at least 12,000 years, dat­ing back to when the glaciers re­treated from North Amer­ica. They are “very deep in the psy­che,” says John B. Zoe, a mem­ber of the Tłį­cho First Na­tion. “Our lan­guage and our way of life are all based on the cari­bou.”

But with the pre­cip­i­tous de­cline of cari­bou across the coun­try, that way of life is un­der threat. The Bar­ren-ground cari­bou that make up the Bathurst herd where Zoe lives in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries de­clined from a mod­ern-day high of roughly 450,000 in the mid-1980s to a low of about 18,000 to­day. Over the same pe­riod, the Indige­nous har­vest of that herd went from 14,000 an­i­mals in the ’80s to 300 in 2010 to es­sen­tially none to­day.

“One of the things the de­cline of cari­bou does is it draws peo­ple away from the land,” says Zoe, who works as a senior ad­vi­sor to the Tłį­cho gov­ern­ment. “We need to en­cour­age peo­ple to fol­low the old trails — not nec­es­sar­ily for har­vest­ing, but for aware­ness.”

Anne Gunn, a cari­bou bi­ol­o­gist who has spent more than three decades work­ing with north­ern peo­ple and cari­bou, echoes his con­cern: “I can’t imag­ine what a loss of cul­ture that must mean to kids grow­ing up now. They have the most to lose,” she says.

Gunn, who worked first with the Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice and then with the gov­ern­ment of North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, is now semi-re­tired. She re­mem­bers keenly the feel­ing of be­ing sud­denly sur­rounded by thou­sands of cari­bou: “You hear some­thing, and some­times you ac­tu­ally smell some­thing, and then they are all around you. The land­scape comes alive. You have a 360-view of mov­ing bod­ies. And that’s gone,” she says. “I think as a bi­ol­o­gist, if I were to fly over the empty tundra now, it would break my heart.”

But most of us who live in south­ern Canada are not as in­vested as Gunn and Zoe. We are now so far from cari­bou coun­try that we no longer need them. Or do we? “My view is we are more con­nected to cari­bou than ever,” says Jim Schae­fer, a Trent Univer­sity bi­ol­o­gist who has stud­ied them for more than three decades. “If we still have cari­bou at the end of this cen­tury, I’d be con­fi­dent we’d solved a whole bunch of is­sues, not just the cari­bou con­ser­va­tion is­sue.”

What Schae­fer means is that cari­bou are an “um­brella species.” They are se­lected for mak­ing con­ser­va­tion­re­lated de­ci­sions, typ­i­cally be­cause pro­tect­ing them in­di­rectly pro­tects many other species that are part of the same ecosys­tem.

In the North for ex­am­ple, cari­bou are the cen­tre of the food web. Among the largest and most abun­dant land mam­mal, they are prey for wolves, bears and other species that scav­enge their car­casses. Cari­bou drop­pings are also es­sen­tial for nu­tri­ent-poor north­ern soils. Cold tem­per­a­tures mean de­com­pos­ing plants take a long time to re­turn ni­tro­gen, car­bon and phos­pho­rus to the earth. But as cari­bou graze, their di­ges­tive sys­tems ef­fi­ciently break down plant mat­ter. One an­i­mal can defe­cate up to 25 times a day, drop­ping more than 220 kilo­grams of pel­lets per year, an im­por­tant source of key nu­tri­ents for the soil.

Cari­bou are also cen­tral to life in north­ern lakes. They are a sig­nif­i­cant source of blood for breed­ing mos­qui­toes, with­out which the in­sects could not pro­duce eggs. This is im­por­tant be­cause mos­quito lar­vae feed on tiny al­gae and plank­ton and the lar­vae in turn feed fish and birds.

Cari­bou that live fur­ther south, in the bo­real for­est and in the moun­tains, are no less an um­brella species than their north­ern kin. They pre­fer forests that are at least half a cen­tury old, habi­tat that suits many other plants and an­i­mals. While most don’t mi­grate the way cari­bou in the North do, they still need large land­scapes to spread out and min­i­mize the risk of wolves and bears killing their calves. The typ­i­cal den­sity of bo­real cari­bou is about one an­i­mal per 16 square kilo­me­tres.

“Cari­bou de­mand a big view,” says Schae­fer. “This is not in keep­ing with our no­tion of 20 years be­ing a long-term plan. We will not un­der­stand con­ser­va­tion of this an­i­mal un­til we scale up,” both in time-scale and ge­og­ra­phy.

The bot­tom line, say cari­bou bi­ol­o­gists, is that in places where healthy cari­bou pop­u­la­tions ex­ist, the land is prob­a­bly

also healthy, pro­vid­ing ecosys­tem ser­vices such as clean air and wa­ter, food and fuel — es­sen­tial to life, in­clud­ing ours.

But here is the prob­lem: most cari­bou pop­u­la­tions are not healthy. The an­i­mal that graces our 25-cent coin was once one of Canada’s most wide­spread wildlife species, found in over 80 per cent of the coun­try. It ranged from New­found­land and the At­lantic prov­inces to Haida Gwaii in Bri­tish Columbia and from south­ern Al­berta to Ellesmere Is­land in Nu­navut.

To­day, their num­bers and their range are sig­nif­i­cantly smaller. At least one pop­u­la­tion is ex­tinct: the Daw­son cari­bou, a small, pale an­i­mal that was last seen in the 1930s on Haida Gwaii, an ar­chi­pel­ago off Bri­tish Columbia. Other pop­u­la­tions are fast head­ing in that di­rec­tion. Que­bec’s Val d’or herd for ex­am­ple num­bers just 18 an­i­mals, and Al­berta’s Lit­tle Smoky herd is no health­ier.

Widen the lens, and the view is just as dis­turb­ing. In Al­berta, cari­bou no longer roam in about 60 per cent of their his­tor­i­cal range. They are also gone from 40 per cent of their Bri­tish Columbia range. In On­tario, half of their bo­real for­est home has been lost to in­dus­try and de­vel­op­ment. In Yukon, North­west Ter­ri­to­ries and Nu­navut, they still lay claim to much of their orig­i­nal habi­tat. The prob­lem there is not their ter­ri­tory so much as it is their num­bers. Many herds have de­clined by 80 to 90 per cent over the past decade.

CARI­BOU ARE ONE OF SEV­ERAL MEM­BERS OF THE deer fam­ily, along with moose and elk. They are gen­er­ally smaller, though, and are unique in that both males and fe­males sport antlers. Most adults have dark brown fur with lighter patches around the neck and rump, and white above each hoof. And as any­one who has stood close to a cari­bou can tell you, they pro­duce a dis­tinct click­ing sound as they walk, which comes from ten­dons slip­ping over foot bones.

Like their moose and deer cousins, they eat grasses, sedges, birch and wil­low leaves and mosses. But un­like the oth­ers, they also eat lichen, which means they can sur­vive at high el­e­va­tions and on the tundra.

Bi­ol­o­gists di­vide cari­bou into three rough eco­types based on their pre­ferred ter­rain: mi­gra­tory tundra, bo­real for­est and moun­tain cari­bou. While all three are the same species and can in­ter­breed, they each have dif­fer­ent life­styles, of­ten re­ferred to as “spac­ing out” and “herd­ing up,” which are re­sponses to preda­tors — los­ing them­selves in the land­scape or in the herd.

Tundra cari­bou, for ex­am­ple, live in herds tens of thou­sands strong and un­der­take one of the long­est land mi­gra­tions of any mam­mal, trekking hun­dreds, even thou­sands of kilo­me­tres across frozen ice sheets to spring calv­ing grounds. Their num­bers fluc­tu­ate on a nat­u­ral cy­cle of roughly 40 years, linked to changes in weather, food avail­abil­ity and in­sect ha­rass­ment.

Bo­real and moun­tain cari­bou don’t have the same nat­u­ral pop­u­la­tion swings. Their life­style is also dif­fer­ent. They lead largely se­den­tary lives in smaller groups. Bo­real fe­males usu­ally calve alone, of­ten on rel­a­tively pro­tected is­lands or in muskegs, while preg­nant moun­tain cari­bou head to higher el­e­va­tions.

Threats are dif­fer­ent for each eco­type. The drop in mi­gra­tory cari­bou num­bers may be the most dif­fi­cult to un­tan­gle be­cause herds typ­i­cally cy­cle from high to low num­bers. As Gunn says, this can leave the im­pres­sion that when num­bers are low, they will bounce back as they al­ways have.

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