Troubling times for Canada’s caribou

News came out recently that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has listed barren-ground caribou as ‘threatened’, which could trigger federal action to protect them under the Species at Risk Act. This Arctic species spreads from Yukon to Baffin Island, and while their numbers are known to fluctuate, the steep population decline in 12 of 14 herds is raising alarm bells that cannot be ignored. In addition to the threat of habitat loss from human and industrial disturbance, caribou populations in the North face the added pressure of an environment that is rapidly warming and being transformed at faster rates than the rest of Canada due to climate change.

The barren-ground caribou now join Canada’s boreal woodland caribou, which are also ‘threatened’ and covered under the Species at Risk Act. In many provinces, there are boreal caribou herds on the brink of extinction, due in large part to fragmentation of their habitat from human and industrial disturbance, which exposes them to more predators and decreases access to their food sources. A federal recovery strategy was released in 2012 and governments are required to be taking steps to protect the critical and undisturbed habitat of caribou. CPAWS is concerned about the slow pace of progress on this recovery strategy and in December released its fourth annual Caribou Report, which found that not enough is being done to protect critical caribou habitat. A five-year status update from the federal government is due in October 2017 and much work is required for Canada to fulfill its legal obligation to protect our endangered caribou.

Trump presidency could threaten ANWR and Porcupine Caribou

According to the latest count, the Porcupine Caribou Herd that Gwich’in people in the Yukon, NWT and Alaska have depended on for millennia is currently healthy, but the herd now faces a renewed threat in the Alaskan calving grounds. Republicans have long coveted the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil drilling, and many campaigns have been fought over the decades to protect this amazing wildlife nursery that is critical for Arctic species such as caribou, wolves, polar bears, foxes and muskoxen, as well as 200 species of migratory birds, and which is considered a sacred site by the Gwich’in people.

The election of Donald Trump has re-invigorated talk of drilling in the coastal plain of ANWR – commonly called the 1002 lands – where 40,000 caribou are born in a two-week period every spring.  The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that 16 billion barrels of oil could be produced from the coastal plain, making it the largest possible source of oil production in the US.

With control of the Congress, Senate and the White House, politicians such as Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski have re-stated their intention to lift restrictions on oil and gas drilling. In early January, U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan introduced oil and gas legislation that would start the process of opening up ANWR to oil and gas drilling.

Alaskan environmental organizations and First Nations in Canada and the US are stepping up their efforts to defend ANWR and a delegation of Gwich’in people even travelled to the US to lobby outgoing President Obama. Yukon Member of Parliament, Larry Bagnell has also made a statement in the House of Commons urging his fellow MPs and Canadians to do whatever they can to preserve ANWR.

In response to the legislation introduced in January, the Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee stated:

“Due to major changes on our climate and thawing twice as fast as anywhere else on this planet has changed Alaskans attitudes towards protection for Alaska. Hunting our animals for food, clothing and tools is part of our identity as Natives and we cannot risk losing that. We must protect what is left and keep our land and animals healthy for future generations.”

You can visit to see a short film about the Gwich’in people’s long battle to save ANWR and sign a petition asking for the coastal plain to be designated as protected wilderness.