Fieldnotes: Rudolph the red-nosed caribou
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Rudolph, the barren-ground caribou
The holidays are approaching, and along with them come festive stories of Santa and his cool reindeer-pulled sleigh. But did you know we have reindeer in Canada? They’re just called something different. Not counting fictional flying and/or red-nosed ones, reindeer are the same species we know as caribou.
Despite being so iconically Canadian that they adorn our 25-cent coin, Rangifer tarandus are a completely circumpolar species — reindeer is the Norse-derived name used across northern Europe, while caribou, a French-Canadian take on the Mi’kmaq word qalipu, is common in North America.
That said, there are different subspecies with different behaviors. Reindeer are largely herded by the Indigenous Sámi people in Scandinavia and Russia, though there are also significant wild reindeer herds. Caribou in North America are wild and mostly migratory, but even here we find differences. The at-risk woodland caribou are the big-antlered ones on the quarter that inhabit Canada’s southern boreal forests while the smaller, scrappier barren-ground caribou that roam the Arctic are also under threat and have critically provided food, clothing and cultural identity to Indigenous peoples for thousands of years.
Barren-ground caribou are also the top terrestrial migrators in the whole world — even more than wildebeest or antelope in the Serengeti — and the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of caribou migrating the longest distance of any animal alive is something to be in awe of.
But such sights are becoming a rarity as Barren-ground caribou have experienced almost unimaginable losses. The Bathurst herd in the western Arctic has declined by 98 per cent since 1986. In Nunavik, the George River herd has declined by 99 per cent since 2001, falling from 800,000 to only 5,500 animals.
WWF-Canada is taking a holistic approach to caribou recovery, beginning with listening to community priorities. We work closely with Indigenous partners to ensure their voices are heard in land-use planning and extractive industry environmental impact assessments. We also fund conservation projects, including the Bathurst Caribou Guardians, a boots-on-the-ground initiative with local Indigenous communities, and scientific research on impacts of development and climate change.
And we do advocacy at government levels while working with industry on solutions that protect caribou and its habitat while still providing economic opportunities to people who need them in the North.
Northerners want caribou calving grounds protected from industry
The barren-ground caribou that once dominated Canada’s Arctic are dwindling. We must act now, and northerners know it.
According to an Environics Research poll we commissioned, 87 per cent of residents in Nunavut, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador) want caribou calving grounds declared fully protected areas that don’t allow industrial development such as oil and gas or mining projects.
Their main reasons were to protect declining caribou populations and to preserve this important source of food security and way of life for Inuit. The latter is especially important in Nunavut. More than half of respondents also said their territorial government isn’t doing enough to protect caribou, while only one-third say they are, and 86 per cent said the most effective method is protecting habitat.
These poll results echo the message we’ve heard for years from our northern partners — calving grounds must be off-limits to industrial development. We are calling on federal and territorial governments to respect the will of the people and ensure these areas become protected no-go zones.
Q&A: Why we all should care about caribou
We checked in with Brandon Laforest, WWF-Canada’s senior specialist for Arctic species and ecosystems about the status of Canada’s caribou.
Why aren’t more people aware of how endangered caribou are?
We tend to focus on “charismatic megafauna” as indicators of problems, and polar bears have really captured the public’s imagination. But caribou are the pressing conservation issue in the Arctic — their declining population numbers speak for themselves and they are culturally vital to Inuit. Part of our work is introducing people to this amazing animal that’s so important to Canada!
What do you wish we knew?
How strong and remarkable they are. They’re diverse, beautiful and emblematic of Canada. They’re in almost every province, every territory — different subspecies, of course. At the same time, they’re all facing an uncertain future.
Why are we seeing barren-ground herd declines topping 90 per cent?
Science and Indigenous knowledge tell us these animals go through population cycles — they get pretty high and then pretty low. But compared to the last time these herds were at population lows 50 years ago, the North is a lot warmer, there’s a lot more development, a lot more disturbance in food sources and, along their migration route, greater human presence and greater human pressure. What’s really worrying is that herds are still declining when they reach predicted low points and not showing any signs of recovery. We’re heading into uncharted territory.
It’s not all bad news — the Porcupine caribou herd has doubled in size. What can we learn from that?
Different herds are on different populations cycles, and the Porcupine herd, which is a barren-ground caribou herd shared between Canada and Alaska, is at an all-time high. Part of the reason they’re doing so well is because they have a co-management board in place involving Indigenous representatives and governments. It’s the gold standard, so it’s important we try to replicate what we see there for other herds across the country. The calving grounds for this herd are completely protected — but they face a worrying future as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge opens up to development in Alaska.
What’s our top priority?
What’s great is that to help caribou recover, we just need to leave them alone. The first thing we hear from any Indigenous partner is the sacredness of the calving grounds and need to protect these lands. These are areas everyone agrees should be set aside as the first step to fostering recovery.
Erin Keenan — Eastern Arctic Specialist
Erin has lived in Iqaluit for four years, where she works on Arctic marine conservation and community engagement in Nunavut for WWF-Canada’s Arctic team. Her current focus is in identifying the areas of the Arctic environment that are priorities for conservation to ensure habitats for Arctic wildlife are protected into the future.
“In the Canadian Arctic, wildlife habitats are still intact at a much broader scale than elsewhere in the world, especially for species like barren-ground caribou. As unprecedented environmental changes are taking effect, we need to collaborate to safeguard this unique area for Arctic wildlife and the communities who rely on them.”