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Are Caribou Destined to Survive Only on Holiday Cards?

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Photo by L.S. Vors/WCS

Caribou could soon become endangered by threats such as oil exploration and climate change, according to a new book by authors from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund.

“Many children who grow up in North America and Europe are familiar with caribou as symbols of holiday myths and legends,” says Justina Ray, Executive Director of WCS-Canada and a co-author of the book.

Caribou is the name given to wild reindeer in North America. They are a familiar sight on holiday cards at this time of the year. Reindeer famously draw Santa’s toy-laden sleigh through the starry Christmas sky.

“It’s important to remember that reindeer play an important role in the rich ecosystems of the Northern Hemisphere that we all rely on.” Ray said in a WCS news release about her book. “Protecting calving areas and other habitats needed to satisfy their enormous needs can help us conserve the caribou for the benefit of both the natural world and human culture.”

Titled “Caribou and the North: A Shared Future” (Dundurn Press Toronto, $50), the book highlights the caribou in terms of its natural history; ecological importance in boreal, mountain, and Arctic ecosystems; and steps conservationists, wildlife managers, and governments can take in protecting the future of this unique deer species.

“The caribou is central to the normal function of northern ecosystems,” Ray says. “With their huge range requirements and need for intact landscapes, these animals are serving as the litmus test for whether we will succeed in taking care of their needs in an area that is under intensifying pressure.”

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“Caribou and the North” presents a comprehensive profile of this species, with biological information on what makes caribou different from other deer, according to the publicity material. “Caribou are the only deer species where males and females both possess antlers — and their superb adaptations to a cold weather existence (they even have hair on the bottoms of their feet).”

 

Caribou have the distinction of being the most abundant large land-dwelling animal of the Far North and have learned to exploit a number of ecosystems: tundra, boreal forests, mountains, and polar deserts, according to the WCS.

“Some populations, such as the famous Porcupine Herd of the Yukon and eastern Alaska embark on epic migrations, whereas the Narrow Lake population of British Columbia’s boreal forest remains in the same habitat year-round.

“Caribou also serve as nutrient dispersers in tundra ecosystems and form an important nutritional source for numerous carnivorous and omnivorous species, such as bears, wolves, wolverines, foxes, ravens, and others. To native peoples such as the Inuit and Gwich’in, the caribou is both a source of sustenance and cultural continuity, as central to their lifestyles as the bison was to Sioux, Blackfoot, and Crow.”

 

In spite of the adaptability of the species, caribou are vulnerable to a number of threats, including deforestation, natural resource extraction and accompanying road networks, and climate change, WCS says.

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Photo by George F. Mobley/NGS

“In North America, caribou have lost about one-third of their southern range. They have been officially classified as ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ by some jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S. Caribou have disappeared entirely from eastern and Great Lakes States, and most herds in Alberta and southern British Columbia are in decline. Even the large migratory herds in the Far North are experiencing widespread declines in numbers and reproduction.”

 

“We’ve learned a hard lesson in many parts of caribou range,” Ray says. “When industrial developments like logging, mining and hydro-electric facilities and their accompanying road networks move in, the health of the ecosystem weakens, and caribou disappear. Our research on boreal forest caribou, which only thrive in intact ecosystems, tells us that we need to impose limits on the extent of industrial development to enable them to survive.”

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Photo by Dean Conger/NGS

WCS has been conducting caribou surveys in northern Ontario for the past several years, collecting baseline information on the animal’s distribution patterns relative to other large mammal species and for land-use planning decisions.

The conservation charity is also testing new survey protocols with Ontario government scientists for vast remote areas. The caribou was one of three focal species used in WCS’s recommendations to expand Nahanni National Park Reserve in Canada’s Northwest Territories.