Issue of the Week: Are the reindeer in trouble?

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Canadian caribou, both barren grounds and woodland subspecies, are garnering attention as studies investigate their declining population numbers. Many wildlife organizations have produced reports attributing factors such as habitat loss, climate change, predators, and human development to be drivers of the declines. New studies are underway to identify the primary drivers and help improve Canadian management plans for caribou.

The Canadian Park and Wilderness Society recently released a statement claiming that it’s the Canadian provinces that are failing in terms of conservation initiatives.

“While the federal recovery strategy provides scientific information that should enable the provinces and territories to create successful caribou conservation plans, in most jurisdictions the science is not being applied. Ontario Science Projects Manager for the David Suzuki Foundation, Rachel Plotkin said. “To compound the situation, many provinces are continuing to approve industrial developments in the remaining intact boreal forest areas that caribou need to survive. This is putting caribou at greater risk.”

CPAW published a study this month titled: Population Critical: How are Canada’s Boreal Woodland Caribou Faring, assessing the various territories initiatives since the federal government’s National Recovery Strategy for Boreal Woodland Caribou went in affect. They found that in addition to a lack of effort by the government, population recovery is being stalled by a lack of legislative support in some provinces and territories.

The study states that: “there is a failure in virtually all jurisdictions to consider the cumulative effects of new development proposals and infrastructure, such as roads and power lines, on the health of the boreal forests and wetlands caribou rely on for survival.”

Though all matters of conservation rely on the cooperation of the public for success, other reports list natural factors as the leading cause for caribou depletion. The years have seen continual warming and greening of the northern boreal regions, which has severely reduced the caribou’s natural habitat.

In barren grounds caribou habitats, persistent ice and freezing rain periodically falls when it was once all snow.  This increases caribou metabolic energy costs needed to liberate the lichens from the ice, either by breaking it with their hooves or melting it in their mouths.

SCI Foundation funded study in 2008-2013 on the woodland caribou in Newfoundland that suggests high caribou populations in the 1990’s may have spurred competition for food and increased habitat fragmentation. Those issues combined with a spike in predators frequenting the region could easily have led to declining numbers in the past 15-20 years.

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The study explains that: “The Strategy brings together several science-based initiatives led by the Sustainable Development and Strategic Science branch of the Department of Environment and Conservation to improve our understanding of the entire predator-prey system in which caribou persist. The Strategy seeks to uncover the underlying causes of the caribou decline, explores wildlife management options such as predator reductions, and delves into the socioeconomics associated with caribou and their predators.”

SCI Foundation is pleased to say that the Newfoundland caribou research is nearly complete, and we have gained many insights to improve management of the woodland caribou, and their predators.

Currently, predator management is only being utilized in certain territories and some organizations view it as unnecessary if other areas of strategic management are carried out effectively. They believe issues including economic development and climate change should be of primary concern.

Marco Musiani, a biologist and co-author of a caribou study published in Nature Climate Change, believes the declining caribou population should be used as an example to demonstrate how human-caused changes are affecting our native wildlife.

“It is telling us a story, that we are impacting the environment,” Musiani said. “It’s like a meteorological station; it takes the temperature of the habitat.”

Whether the solution is found in environmentally conscious development, stronger territorial initiatives, predator management, or general monitoring of our plant’s changing climate, conservationists must continue to research this issue. Caribou are iconic to our continent and serve a large role among certain Inuit communities. They are part of North American heritage and SCI Foundation hopes that it’s continued research, as well as other project’s findings, can contribute to the recovery of the reindeer.

Twice a week, SCI Foundation informs readers about conservation initiatives happening worldwide and updates them on SCI Foundation’s news, projects and events. Tuesdays are dedicated to an Issue of the Week and Thursday’s Weekly Updates will provide an inside look into research and our other science-based conservation efforts. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more SCI Foundation news. 

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