On a global scale, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classified the reindeer (known in North America as caribou) 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 the forest.
In 2016, 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 are now classified as “endangered” under Canada’s Species At Risk Act, 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.
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.
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.
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