How Canada is Driving Santa’s Reindeer Toward Extinction

Not to be too glum just as the merry season hits its peak, but reindeer have been on my mind in more ways than one this week.

You see, reindeer are known as caribou in North America, and some of Canada’s herds are in serious trouble.

On a global scale, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classified the reindeer as “vulnerable” in 2015 due to an observed population decline of 40 per cent over the last roughly 25 years.

When we think of caribou, many of us picture massive herds on epic migrations in the north.

But there are actually two main types of caribou: barren-ground caribou, who live on the tundra (these are the ones who migrate) and boreal or woodland caribou who prefer to chill in the forest.

A year ago, Canada’s barren-ground caribou were listed as “threatened,” but it’s our woodland caribou that are in the most dire trouble.

Historically, the range of woodland caribou covered more than half of Canada and into the northern United States. They have already disappeared from most of their southern range and they have been designated as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada since 2002.

Several Caribou Populations ‘Endangered’

Several caribou populations are now classified as “endangered,” from the Atlantic-Gaspésie population in Quebec to the Central Mountain population in Alberta and B.C. to the Dolphin and Union population in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Environment Canada reported in 2011 that there were approximately 34,000 boreal caribou in 51 ranges remaining in Canada. That might seem like a lot of caribou, but on the individual range scale trouble is brewing.

Why Are Caribou Endangered in Canada?

Take the Little Smoky range in Alberta. This is the most endangered caribou herd in Canada.

Sixty years ago, the 2,500 square kilometre range of these caribou in west-central Alberta was virtually untouched. Today, it has been cut up by everything from forestry cut-blocks to roads to seismic lines to well sites and pipelines (check out the Nature of Things episode.)

The federal government’s recovery strategy for boreal caribou says only five per cent of the forest in the Little Smoky Range remains intact. There are just 80 caribou left in the range.

That’s part of the reason why this herd has the provincial status of “at immediate risk of extirpation (localized extinction).” To keep this population alive, Alberta has been using the controversial strategy of killing wolves, the main predator of caribou.

Wolves or Humans: What’s Driving Caribou to Local Extinction?

The thing is that the root cause of population declines in woodland caribou is habitat fragmentation. For eons, the strategy for woodland caribou to escape wolves has been to move deeper into the woods, but human activity means that is no longer all that effective. Seismic lines, roads and pipelines create “wolf highways” through the forest, giving them quick access into the caribou’s range. Killing the wolves is a band-aid measure, but doesn’t solve the real problem.

Since 2006, more than 1,000 wolves have been shot in the Little Smokey and A La Peche caribou ranges. This is highly controversial, especially because the Alberta government has continued to sell hundreds of leases for oil and gas wells in endangered habitat.

Since 2012, 667 new wells were drilled in core critical caribou habitat in the Little Smoky range alone. A total of 96 per cent of that caribou range is within 500 metres of human development.

But the problem certainly isn’t isolated to Alberta. In B.C. this spring, forestry company Canfor clear-cut a chunk of forest recognized as vital to the survival of endangered caribou. The mountain caribou herd known as Wells Grey South has plummeted from about 320 animals in 1994 to 120 today. B.C. has also culled wolves in an attempt to slow the decline of caribou.

So Is the Government Doing Anything About This?

In 2012, the federal government released a draft caribou recovery strategy that called for 65 per cent of habitat in caribou ranges to be protected from disturbance. The next five years is a tale of missed deadlines and legal action.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society took the federal government to court this year, arguing that the government has failed to provide an update on caribou in five years and that it’s legally required to do so under the Species at Risk Act. The government responded with a promise to plan to plan.

Last week, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre filed a petition with federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna under the Species at Risk Act that documents the fact that all 10 of British Columbia’s most southerly mountain caribou are in imminent danger of extinction – and demands an Emergency Order to save them.

“If the minister follows the law, these Canadian reindeer could be safer by Christmas Eve,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director at the Environmental Law Centre. “We are the third team this year to send the minister scientific proof of an emergency situation regarding mountain caribou.”

All 10 populations have declined dramatically since a 2008 provincial recovery plan was issued and continued to decline after the 2014 federal recovery strategy was released.

“At this very season the caribou are migrating down from the high country to low elevation forests that they need to survive,” said Lee Harding, a retired Environment Canada biologist and manager.  “In many areas these caribou will not find the mature forests they need for winter forage and to escape from wolves. Instead, they face clearcuts and active logging.”

This week a press release landed in my inbox from the Pembina Institute, noting that Alberta’s incomplete caribou recovery plan (filed two months late) fails to meet the legal requirement to outline a path to recovery for woodland caribou.

“Given Alberta’s deficient plan, we call on the federal government to step in and recommend protection of critical habitat for caribou in Alberta,” said Simon Dyer, Alberta regional director at the Pembina Institute.

“Without finalized range plans that meet federal rules, responsible oil and gas development is out of reach and Alberta’s resource-based communities will continue to be impacted by a failing regulatory system operating outside the law.”

And there, folks, is the crux of the issue. Should the plight of the caribou dictate how and where we extract natural resources? The Species At Risk Act says yes. But, based on the heel-dragging by politicians, it seems governments aren’t going to enforce the law unless they’re forced to.

Meantime, the forestry industry has launched a lobbying campaign to try to convince the government to stand by and do nothing. Santa would not be impressed.

Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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