If Jim Schaefer were to be cryogenically frozen and then wake up suddenly in 2100, the first thing he would ask would be, “Are the caribou okay?”
Caribou are Schaefer’s obsession, because he recognizes that the health of their population is an indicator of what’s going right — or wrong — in the natural world as a whole. They’re sensitive to disturbances and need a healthy ecosystem in order to thrive: if caribou are suffering, it’s a sure sign that many other species are struggling as well.
“I’ve learned to call this ‘caribou century,’ in part because caribou lost or conserved will be a very sensitive sign about our success at a whole host of challenges that we face,” says Schaefer, a professor of biology at Trent University.
The boreal population of caribou is classified as threatened in Ontario, which means that if steps aren’t taken to preserve them, they will become endangered. Caribou need large, undisturbed tracts of forest in which to live and feed. They prefer areas of old-growth forest, where the trees and plants are 50 years old or older.
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The population, estimated to be around 5,000 in Ontario, is threatened by a number of factors, including development, road traffic, deforestation, and the effects of climate change. Deer are better equipped to survive in the north, because they can more easily adapt to developed or lightly forested environments —and that’s also a problem, because white-tailed deer carry a parasite known colloquially as “brainworm,” which is fatal to both caribou and moose.
“The climate is changing the forest, and one of the bigger ways in which biological response [is happening is through] the expansion of deer in some places. Deer and caribou cannot coexist,” says Justina Ray, president and senior scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.
The freak warming spells that have been punctuating Ontario winters also create challenges for caribou, as rain can freeze into a sheet that prevents them from digging for food under the snow.
“If you’ve got these wacky winters where you’ve got rain or snow events, if they dig to the lichen, and they can’t get through it, they’ll starve,” says Ray. “We have incidents throughout caribou range [outside of Ontario] of large-scale starvation of 50 to 100 caribou at a time from mysterious events that are most likely weather events.”
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Development in the north is varied and wide-reaching. Everything from resource extraction to simple road construction leaves its mark on the landscape and on the caribou that use it.
“Research has shown us that the ultimate factor influencing caribou distribution and habitat use is that ability to find refuge from predators. For this reason, the primary threat is considered to be cumulative disturbance,” says April Mitchell, regional species-at-risk specialist with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
Because the caribou require vast stretches of old forest, any actions we take to save them now won’t yield results for years — but that doesn’t mean we can afford to wait.
“There's a paradox of caribou — in addition to the long-term vision that we need, there's some urgency to our actions. We need to start putting into place the kinds of measures that would increase the likelihood of keeping caribou in our forests, but those need to be done soon,” says Schaefer.
Under pressure from environmental groups, in July, the federal government released a plan detailing what it’s doing to protect caribou. The plan promises the creation of a National Boreal Caribou Knowledge Consortium, which would gather research on the animal and its critical habitat. The document is available for public comment until September 25.
The MNRF is also set to publish a species-at-risk guide for 28 species, including the caribou. Northern Ontario municipalities, the forestry industry, and First Nations pushed back against the guide and called for more consultation on the issue.
“We have some hard decisions to make, and they have to be made in the context of economic priorities at the time,” says Ray. “The main way that we humans proceed is to make things less bad than they otherwise would be. We’re getting to a situation where there are some hard trade-offs. Once you have caribou populations, or any species at risk, that have been driven to a point where they are more and more vulnerable, you can’t just keep creating more impacts and trying to make them less bad.”