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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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,
protect calving ground in the Northwest Territories
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.”
To count a herd as accurately as possible, they are tracked by radio collars. When the herds combine into a large group, they are photographed. The number of caribou counted in the photo is compared with the number of radio collars initially dispersed and an estimation is given through the ratio.