On a deadly trail

Caribou are disappearing at an alarming rate. But some think they know how to save them.

On a deadly trail

Valerie Courtois/Canadian Boreal

For years, First Nations groups and scientists have been warning about the decline of caribou. Now, with some herds wiped out completely and others suffering declines of up to 97 per cent since the 1980s, governments and resource companies are finally taking note.

The threat to caribou was an especially hot topic last month in Winnipeg at the 13th annual North American Caribou Workshop, normally a low-key event dominated by scientists and researchers. First Nations—asked to consult based on their millennia-long relationship with the animal—made up more then half of the participants, and the workshop attracted representatives from the governments of Greenland, Russia, the Canadian Prairies and territories, and major natural resource companies including AbitibiBowater. Avrim Lazar, president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada, the trade organization that represents forestry companies, says many of those in the industry are starting to plan developments around caribou.

This comes at a vital time for the species that has been labelled as threatened for the past 10 years. Climate change is literally melting their habitat, and resource development efforts continue to push north into the old-growth boreal forests and Arctic tundra that they need to survive. “As goes habitat, so goes caribou,” says James Schaefer, a biology professor at Trent University.

But new research is helping scientists understand the fragility of the animal’s life cycle, and what can be done to maintain it. Schaefer says noise from mining, forestry and other industry changes migration and interrupts breeding cycles. A herd can roam upwards of 100,000 sq. km a year and movement is easily disrupted by minor disturbances like trails and roads. But developments have the opposite effect on moose and white-tailed deer, who thrive in disturbed areas and out-compete caribou for resources.

Schaefer says the only way to save caribou is by setting aside massive tracts of land for conservation. But that doesn’t mean all industrial development has to stop. By monitoring herds in Canada, Schaefer and other scientists have discovered that up to a third of the caribou’s habitat can be encroached on by humans before population numbers start falling.

With this knowledge, companies, governments and First Nations are moving quickly. Agreements have already been signed over the location and profit-sharing of developments in Labrador and the Northwest Territories, and negotiations are under way for land use agreements in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. “Our survival has depended on caribou and now the roles have reversed,” says Schaefer. “We need to stop the piecemeal approach [to development]. It will be a change, but we can have the best of both worlds.”

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