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Mapping the decline of Canada’s caribou

 A snapshot of the country’s drastically dwindling caribou herds

  • Published Oct 30, 2018
  • Updated Sep 20, 2022
  • 435 words
  • 2 minutes
dwindling caribou map Expand Image

“Caribou: one hoof in the grave.” So read the epitaph on a two-metre-high tombstone Greenpeace erected in front of federal environment and climate change minister Catherine McKenna’s office on May 1, 2018. The stunt aimed to draw attention to the plight of the country’s boreal woodland caribou, the protection of which has faced “many delays” according to a mid-April 2018 report from the federal environment commissioner.

All of Canada’s caribou subspecies have increasingly been in the news as the animal’s national population, which once numbered in the millions, has declined drastically and quickly to little more than a million today. Experts are concerned some populations may not survive the threats they’re facing. One herd, British Columbia’s South Selkirk, had just three females left in April 2018.

Canadian Geographic created the map above as a snapshot of the status of Canada’s caribou, grouping the species by “designatable units,” or DUs (shown here), that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada uses. (Dawson’s caribou, which lived on Graham Island, B.C., went extinct in the early 20th century, and haven’t been included.)

Note that the population estimates here suffer from one of the significant challenges facing the species — a lack of regular monitoring. Both the highest and current estimates are not necessarily from the same time period. And some current estimates are decades old. Experts know that the ranks of seven DUs decreased between COSEWIC’s 2012 recovery strategy and its 2017 progress report. The latter notes that “Five years after the release of the Recovery Strategy, every province and territory is still working to fully complete its range plans.”

Those plans are still missing. While many blame the provinces and territories for a lack of action and the feds for a lack of leadership, Justina Ray, the president and senior scientist of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, has a more succinct explanation of the problem.

“We are a natural resource-driven economy, and limits to our footprint is anathema to most,” says Ray. “Our system of monetizing does not extend to species. They have no value.”

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