Caribou climate change Peter Mather

The new North

Novel patterns are emerging in the Arctic, where people and wildlife are adapting to a world irrevocably altered by the climate crisis

After graduating from university in 2000, I took a teaching job in the remote First Nations community of Old Crow, along the Porcupine River in northern Yukon. The Gwich’in of Old Crow chose the location of the community to align with the spring and fall migrations of the Porcupine caribou herd. Every year the caribou pass Old Crow as they migrate to and from their calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic Coastal Plains. 

The caribou normally cross the Porcupine River in April or early May when it’s still frozen. One June, when Gwich’in Elder Robert Bruce took me upriver on a spring hunt, we were seeing caribou cow with calves, two or three days old, swimming across the swollen, freezing river.

Calving had happened in the boreal forest south of Old Crow. The caribou were a week’s travel short of the calving grounds. 

We rounded a corner in our boat and saw a cow pacing nervously at the top of a 60-metre cutbank. She was calling out to her calf, who was stuck in the mud at river level. Bruce steered the boat to the riverbank and when we were close enough, scooped up the little calf. We moved her upstream to solid ground and a caribou trail that led to her mom. 

It was the first time Bruce had seen the caribou calve so far from their calving grounds — an early cue to the distress the changing climate is causing on the natural world.

As a Whitehorse-based photojournalist, I have documented that distress and its impacts on wildlife, wild landscapes and people connected to the land for the last 20 years.

The photographs here tell those stories and show how, for those in the North, the forces of a rapidly changing climate are playing out in front of our eyes.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd migration covers more than 2,400 kilometres each year from its calving grounds in the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, through its range in Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The herd’s calving grounds are centred on a small strip of flat grasslands between the Arctic Ocean and the mountains of the Brooks Range, providing a safe-haven for calves and an abundance of grasses and sedge for lactating cows to feed on. Though it is the only suitable calving area in the enormous range of the herd, the coastal plains are now threatened by oil and gas development.

A group of pregnant cow caribou cross the dangerous jumble of broken river ice as they’re drawn to their calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The migration of the Porcupine caribou is thought to be the longest among land mammals and it can be treacherous as environmental conditions change.

A group of caribou from the Porcupine herd linger on the edge of the Crow River during their spring migration to the Arctic Coast. The Gwich’in  of Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska depend on the caribou for their cultural, physical and spiritual sustenance. They live in 13 communities throughout the North and the subsistence lifestyle of the Gwich’in is based around the caribou — hunting them during their long migration.

In 2013 my wife Terri and I stumbled upon a black bear sow and three cubs emerging from their den. Watching the momma bear with her cubs reminded Terri of having a newborn. The mother was so tired and worn out that she didn’t give us a second thought. She patiently waited while the cub cried and screamed for 45 minutes until it tuckered itself out and retreated back into its den. Then the relieved mother followed.

A grizzly bear follows its own tracks as it explores around its den in early spring. I often wonder which animals will benefit from the warming weather and which animals will suffer. Does a bear need an extended sleep each winter or will it thrive with more time in spring and fall to stuff its belly?

A black bear cub emerges from its den, to take its first tentative steps in a new world. With spring arriving earlier every year in the North, bears are naturally emerging from their dens sooner every year.

I began photographing spawning Chinook salmon in Tatchun Creek in central Yukon in 2013. Salmon need cool waters to spawn in. If the water in the creek is too warm, they’ll wait in the deep, cool waters of the Yukon River until the temperature in Tatchun Creek comfortably drops. 

I was roaming up and down the small, bear- and salmon-infested shore of Tatchun Creek when I bumped into fish biologist Nicolas De Graf, who has been studying Yukon salmon for decades. I followed him and his son, Joe, around for a day as they captured salmon to gather eggs and milt (semen) for a school hatchery project with the local Carmacks Little Salmon First Nation. He was also measuring the temperature of the creek, which salmon are very sensitive to when spawning.

Tatchun Creek is a minor spawning creek for Yukon River Chinook Salmon. I’ve returned here every year since 2013 and watched the salmon move into the creek later and later in the summer, year after year.

I set up a remote camera on a wolverine den in Alaska’s coastal plains and captured a pair of red foxes when they came over to investigate it. Spotting red fox here is alarmingly common. One of the well-documented concerns with climate change is the migration of red foxes north. As the temperature has risen in the Arctic, red foxes are now able to survive and thrive where they couldn’t before.

A red fox on a caribou kill in the Arctic Coastal Plains. The presence of red fox so far above their traditional range is causing a disruption in many Northern ecosystems — the red fox is a much more efficient hunter than the Arctic fox.

An Arctic Fox visits a wolf-killed caribou on Alaska’s North Slope. The northern cousin is seeing more competition as red foxes move into their range, but also a more direct threat: red fox are known to prey on Arctic fox.

Many Inuit have humorous stories about the shock of seeing their first moose. The massive ungulates, here in the boreal forest of Alaska, are no longer an uncommon site for Arctic communities. 

In the winter of 2019 I was flying with biologists studying wolverines on Alaska’s Arctic coast. We flew over a willow patch and counted 17 moose.

Throughout the North, Elders talk about the changes on the land brought by the slow migration of willows, which moose eat, moving North along river valleys. Moose and hare have followed willow trees and shrubs that have slowly migrated north. Lynx, following their prey the hare, are also increasingly found in the Arctic.

In a sealskin boat, Inupiat whalers paddle through an opening in the ocean ice. One of the most magical experiences of my life was spending 24 hours on the ice with an Inupiat whaling crew. The light, the community effort and the success of a bowhead whale hunt, is a once in a lifetime experience.

An Inupiat hunter, with his harpoon ready, prepares to pursue a bowhead whale. The bowhead hunt is a subsistence hunt, with the meat divided up amongst the hunting crew and community members.

A bowhead whale is secured to the shore ice as Inupiat hunters prepare to pull it up. Bowhead hunts in Alaska have always contained a certain amount of risk but these risks are mediated by the thousand-year-old knowledge of Elders and whaling captains. As a warming climate makes the sea ice less predictable, the hunt is subsequently more dangerous.

Caribou rest on an ice patch in the mountains in northern Alaska. It reminded me that my dad, a passionate armchair archeologist and history lover, was ecstatic when some sheep hunters found 1,700-year-old caribou scat on an ice patch behind our cabin in 1997.

Caribou have always used high elevation ice patches to escape the incessant mosquitoes of summer; First Nations hunters have always used this knowledge to hunt caribou. As the ice patches melt in the warming climate, artifacts like atlatl darts, bows and arrows are being revealed.

In 2015, I was on a caribou photography expedition in Yukon’s Ivvavik National Park where we spent the day photographing caribou crossing a small ice patch. On our way back to camp we found an ancient hunting tool on rocks that were once encompassed by the shrinking ice patch. Yukon archeologists said it was most likely a part of a makeshift scarecrow that hunters would use to corral caribou during a hunt.

Cooper Island is a small barren island just off Alaska’s Arctic coastline, home to polar bears, birds and George Divoky. Divoky has been studying seabirds, specifically black guillemots, on this small island for over four decades and he has observed first-hand the effects of climate change like few others.

A black guillemot delivers a meal to its chick: sculpin, inferior prey in Alaska’s waters. Black guillemots rely on the fatty, nutritious flesh of Arctic cod to feed their chicks. Arctic cod tend to track on the ice edge, but ice that was a few miles off shore in the summer is now hundreds of miles away. It’s a journey too far for breeding pairs of black guillemots.

A guillemot chick that did not survive. The survival rate of chicks has been drastically reduced with the movement North of summer sea ice and the access to food that the shifting ice edge provides.

A black guillemot lands on a log at its colony on Cooper Island. In his four decades of study, Divoky has seen this Arctic island warm enough for a breeding colony of black guillemots to establish themselves here. As the Arctic continues to warm, he’s now watching that colony disappear.

Peter Mather is an award-winning photographer and fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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