Slide back and forth to compare the status of caribou in Canada as assessed by COSEWIC in 2004 and 2017. (Maps: Chris Brackley/Can Geo)
All caribou in Canada are now at some risk of extinction, with more than half the DUs meeting the scientific criteria for endangered and the others either threatened or special concern. Since 2004, only one group, Peary caribou, showed improvement, going from endangered to threatened. This as a result of some evidence of population recovery as warmer summers boosted forage growth after severe population die offs from weather events during the 1990s.
Reasons for caribou’s poor prospects vary, but the common thread is the glacial pace of any actions to address well-identified threats or common concerns. For boreal and mountain caribou, it is all about destruction of habitats by oil and gas, logging and other industries leading to heightened levels of predation (which is further exacerbated by recreational activities in some places). And in many ranges across these four DUs, resource development has been allowed to continue, largely unabated. Rather than setting limits on habitat disturbance within imperilled caribou ranges, governments continue to rely on largely ineffectual project-by-project impact mitigation.
In northern herds, where there is less habitat clearing, an accumulation of factors is likely driving the declines, including climate change and, in some cases, hunting. For both Dolphin and Union and Peary caribou, moving across sea ice is a constant in their annual travels, but now these movements could be disrupted by both weaker ice and increased ship traffic.
So what happens now? Listing a species under the Species at Risk Act is the first step, but the stages that follow are all too often painfully slow and plodding. One of the most difficult is the examination of socio-economic factors that might arise from protection measures and long drawn-out consultations on these. For example, despite being first assessed as endangered in 2004, Peary caribou were not formally listed for protection under the Species at Risk Act until 2011 and recovery planning only began in 2014, just when COSEWIC embarked on its 10-year re-assessment.
For the caribou populations that have been listed for protection, often after long delays, the stages that follow are taking far too long in almost all cases. While the management plan was being written for Dolphin and Union caribou, for example, the very factors being written about in the plan worsened and these caribou had to be reclassified as endangered. But even at this stage, action depends on the provinces and territories, which have shown a marked lack of interest in taking strong steps to protect caribou. Boreal caribou are the most high-profile example of this, where five years after listing, Environment and Climate Change Canada found in its own progress report that habitat conditions of most of the 51 ranges had deteriorated in spite of identification of critical habitat, which is legally required to be managed to retain caribou.
The fate of caribou is about more than a single species. In many ways, the fate of caribou also represents the fate of Canada’s North. And right now, we have plenty of reason to worry about where things are headed. Our vast northern lands still contain globally important intact areas — the kind of wild spaces species such as caribou depend on for their survival. But these largely undisturbed areas don’t exist due to good planning or political foresight. They are simply remote enough to have not been exploited — yet.
The question facing caribou and the North is ‘are we willing to change our approaches and adopt new paradigms or will we just continue with the destructive status quo?’ Change means placing clear limits on human activity, doing everything we can to lower our climate impact and fulfilling government obligations under the Species at Risk Act. A good start would be to get Species at Risk listings finished quickly, while also putting recovery plans into action through bold land-use planning decisions. Actions must include a mix of incentives, innovation in resource extraction, restoring habitat and acting as if failure is not an option, instead of waiting for legal challenges over inaction to spur last-gasp efforts.
Caribou are Canada’s responsibility and we owe it to the world, and ourselves, to take that responsibility seriously.