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In-depth
Caribou in Canada
Across the country, caribou are struggling to survive in their ever-changing habitat. Facing a modern world, they are losing the battle.

Changing times: Decline of the Caribou
With five of the Northwest Territories' eight barren ground herds in decline, some by as much as 85 percent, it's not surprising that a caribou summit meeting in Inuvik early in 2007 attracted more than twice the expected number of attendees. The summit's goal was to develop a series of policies to counteract the population declines.

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service   
Learning from native elders and using aerial survey methods, researchers discovered long ago that caribou populations naturally undergo large fluctuations. Reports show that there were low numbers of caribou in the Northwest Territories during the 1920s, followed by a population peak in the 1940s. A decline from 1950 to 1970 was followed by a surge in numbers that peaked in the 1980s then dropped again in 2000.

In recent years, researchers have become concerned that additional factors — climate change and human activities — may be compounding the herds' natural fluctuations.

Climate change
The average annual temperature in the Canadian Arctic has been increasing by more than 0.25ºC a decade over the past 50 years. One caribou population, which migrates between the mainland and Victoria Island, could be significantly affected if the ice on Coronation Gulf decreases in thickness, making the crossings more dangerous.

Warming has also caused an increase in precipitation, adding thicker blankets of snow for the caribou to dig through to get at the lichens and mosses that sustain them in winter. When the precipitation comes as freezing rain, the food source remains locked under an impenetrable layer. In these conditions, the caribou expend too much energy seeking food, and many die of starvation and exhaustion.


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Climate change also decreases the amount and quality of food that grows in the summer months, preventing caribou from building enough fat stores to survive the harsh winters. This also affects reproduction: cows lacking sufficient fat come into heat too late to get pregnant, resulting in fewer calves born in the spring.

Photo: iStockphoto/M. Lenny
Human influence
Increasing human activities — diamond mines, ice roads, oil and gas exploration, a pending pipeline, outfitters and increasing populations — in caribou territory is another major factor. In 2004 alone, more than two million hectares of mineral claims were staked in the Northwest Territories. There are now four diamond mines in the range of the Bathurst barren ground caribou herd.

The development of mining is accompanied by a network of access roads, which bring hunters from southern communities much farther north into formerly inaccessible caribou habitat. It has also caused an increase in caribou deaths and injuries due to vehicle collisions.

Caribou summit
The caribou summit — attended by government representatives, outfitters, biologists, local residents, hunter and trapper organizations and non-governmental organizations, — concluded with 20 new policy initiatives intended to mitigate the population declines, including:

  • protect calving ground in the  Northwest Territories and Nunavut
  • cut all non-indigenous, commercial sport hunting and commercial hunting (for the sale of meat) from the harvest
  • develop local and regional codes of conduct for caribou harvesting, drawing on traditional practices

The  Northwest Territories government stated that the main goal of caribou management is to “manage human activities such that these activities do not cause herds to decline to the point where people do not have enough caribou or the herds are unable to recover from natural declines.”

By Stephanie Woods
Caribou ranges

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Caribou in Canada
Introduction Changing times Northern significance Caribou subspecies Map Photo Gallery
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Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Serv./B.Stevens
Some migrating caribou walk over 4,400 kilometres in a year between calving grounds and trying to find food.
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