At Risk of Extinction

Caribou numbers in Canada are dropping drastically — and quickly — leaving the iconic land mammal on the brink of extinction

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Caribou, like this one in the Northwest Territories, are increasingly threatened across the country. (Photo: Alex Elliott/Can Geo Photo Club)

Caribou are a symbol of Canada’s North, highly adapted to living for months in ice and snow. But not all caribou are alike.

Indigenous Peoples have long recognized caribou types, some migrating up and down mountains, others spending all year in lowland boreal forests, while the famous barrenground herds migrate hundreds of kilometres between coastal Arctic tundra (where they give birth to their young) and boreal forest (where they scatter into small groups to spend the winter beneath the tree canopy). Indigenous Peoples’ deep knowledge of caribou makes them ideal partners in the work of saving caribou and we must go beyond mere “consultations” in working with the people for whom these creatures are cultural and spiritual touchstones.

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Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo

The question facing caribou and the North is ‘are we willing to change our approaches and adopt new paradigms or will we just continue with the destructive status quo?’

Other caribou populations are dispersed across vast areas, hiding under the tree canopy (in the boreal) or tucked away on remote, hard-to-reach islands in the High Arctic (such as Peary caribou), which makes getting a handle on numbers next to impossible. Sadly, the populations might be most easily tracked where herds have diminished to only a handful of animals, such as in the central and southern mountain groups in Alberta and British Columbia.

The fate of caribou is about more than a single species. In many ways, the fate of caribou also represents the fate of Canada’s North.

So what happens now? Listing a species under the Species at Risk Act is the first step, but the stages that follow are all too often painfully slow and plodding. One of the most difficult is the examination of socio-economic factors that might arise from protection measures and long drawn-out consultations on these. For example, despite being first assessed as endangered in 2004, Peary caribou were not formally listed for protection under the Species at Risk Act until 2011 and recovery planning only began in 2014, just when COSEWIC embarked on its 10-year re-assessment.

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