Finding a Lifeline for Canada’s Threatened Arctic Caribou

Canada’s great, white north seems to be getting a little less white as the years go by thanks to above-average increases in Arctic temperatures and increasing levels of industrial development.

Still, the north remains great, and there’s nothing more emblematic of that greatness than the astounding 1,000-kilometre seasonal migration of the region’s barren-ground caribou herds.

Named for their habitat — sprawling Arctic tundra which extends beyond the northern tree line — barren-ground caribou have experienced alarming population declines for years, according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and those declines are occurring alongside unprecedented levels of climate change and habitat disturbance.

The committee recently changed the status of barren-ground caribou herds from a species of ‘special concern’ to the more dire category of ‘threatened’ — one step away from ‘endangered.’

“These caribou are in trouble,” Justina Ray, co-chair of the Terrestrial Mammals Subcommittee with COSEWIC, a group of cross-country wildlife experts and scientists, told DeSmog Canada.

“We did a large analysis of 15 herds, which hasn’t been done before.”

Some of these far north caribou herds have experienced population losses of more than 90 per cent over recent decades, slowly caving to the layered pressures of a warmer climate, development, resource extraction and hunting.

Image: WWF Canada

Cumulative Impacts Overlooked in Project Approvals

The caribou’s threatened status comes about just as a federal panel is reviewing the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act under which major projects must seek approval.

Ray can’t help but see the link between the status of the caribou and the status of Canada’s environmental assessment laws.

“The problem for these caribou is a combination of cumulative impacts and novel disturbance — new things that are occurring in these barren ground ranges that weren’t there before,” Ray said.

The failure to connect the overall impacts of resource development and human disturbance on these travelling species is a major factor in their decline, Ray said.

“It’s very illustrative of this piecemeal decision-making,” Ray said. “No one is looking at establishing limits to that or checking in in an overarching fashion.”

Right now with major project approvals, we’re simply “chipping away one decision at a time in a way that leads to this gradual destruction.”

Ray said the recent COSEWIC review of at risk species identified a number of migratory species that are not faring well in today’s environment, including Coho salmon, Nuttall’s cottontail bunnies and monarch butterflies. 

Tweet: ‘It really struck us, how impacted migratory species are.’ #Arctic #Caribou #cdnpoli“It really struck us, how impacted migratory species are.”

A 2013 report from the Conference Board of Canada predicted a 91 per cent increase in mining in northern Canada.

The race for resources in the north has prompted the Canadian World Wildlife Fund to campaign for revoked mining licences in caribou calving grounds.

Ray said researchers don’t know just how much development barren-ground caribou can tolerate.

“Sometimes just one new road in an area can have a disproportionate effect because it’s this novel disturbance that can be a disproportionate issue for caribou that is experiencing truck traffic, dust, etc. for the first time.”

“That can be incredibly disruptive. If you combine that with harvest, resource development, climate change and these other uncertainties, that can add a lot of pressure and stress to a caribou population over time.”

Seizing the Opportunity to Modernize Environmental Assessment

Ray recently presented to the panel, tasked with reviewing Canada’s environmental assessment process.

In her submission, Ray emphasized that, as it currently stands, the process has significant gaps when it comes to ensuring the veracity and independence of science used within the process.

For example, she said, as the legislation currently stands, there’s no procedure to guarantee the independence of science used by consultants hired by project proponents.

Ray’s concerns about the role of science in the assessment process have been echoed by numerous other academics, scientists and researchers who also made submissions to the panel.

“I think the whole process has been plagued by a lack of robust science. It’s actually a more interesting question to ask where science has been robustly assessed in a review process.”

“Even the recent federal Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline decision didn’t take into consideration what an oil spill would result in,” Ray added.

Still, if Canada gets it right, we could pave the way in the creation of a modernized assessment process, Ray said.

“We could potentially be a model for the rest of the world.”

Image: Caribou in Alaska. Photo: Paxon Woebler/Expedition Arguk via Flickr cc 2.0

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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