Canada’s Endangered Woodland Caribou

Caribou are now an endangered species in Canada and their conservation causes heated debate among scientists, industry, and community members. This post briefly reviews the challenges facing Alberta’s woodland caribou.

Industry and Caribou

In Alberta, caribou populations were once abundant. Now, only 15 herds remain. The number one threat to caribou is the loss of habitat due to resource development (oil, gas, and crude bitumen).

Woodland caribou live in the boreal forest region. Over 20 percent of Alberta’s boreal forest has been destroyed. This destruction includes the construction of tailings ponds which hold 1 trillion litres of industrial waste product which leeches into the surrounding environment. According to an article written for The Guardian, “these open, unlined ponds currently cover 220 sq. km, an area of land equivalent to 73 New York Central Parks.”

Caribou rely on lichen (cladonia rangiferina) in the winter months to survive. They find it by digging through the snow. They eat 7 – 11 pounds of it per day. Development is destroying this essential food source. Industry argues that it will restore the destroyed land after production. But, the biomass of caribou lichen takes 60 – 80 years to stabilize. Furthermore, scientists argue that restoration is not likely or even possible. University of Alberta biologist Suzanne Bayley told the Globe and Mail, “it makes us angry because they will put some kind of plants back on the landscape, but it will not look the way it was and it will not have the same type of functions.” University of Berkeley biologist David Moreno-Mateos agrees, “we don’t know the right way to bring [ecosystems] back.”

The effect on caribou extends beyond industrial development. An article in  The  Journal  of  Wildlife  Management shows that woodland caribou try to stay 250 – 1000m away from industrial development.

While the Alberta government has acknowledged the importance of protecting caribou, it continues to sell off important caribou habitat to industry.

Wolves and Woodland Caribou

Caribou rely on their ability to outrun wolves in deep snow to survive attacks. Even where caribou habitat remains, road construction has made them easy prey. Wolves are able to easily outrun, exhaust, and kill caribou using roads.

To deal with this, the province has been culling wolves for 8 years. They have been baiting and shooting 100 wolves per year. Wolves have been killed in areas where caribou habitat is over 90% destroyed. Some conservationists and scientists support culling. Others are angry that the province is killing wolves but is not taking action to protect habitat.

Indigenous Activism

People are scared to speak out because the resource industry in Canada is so powerful. However, for years, Indigenous groups have been raising concerns about how tar sands production has affected the land, water, and wildlife. This is because production has poisoned Indigenous communities causing rare cancers and declines in health. Renee Lewis reports, there are “elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, selenium and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)…in a variety of animals that Indigenous groups depend on for food…Indigenous populations are especially vulnerable to these impacts because of the close link between their livelihoods and the environment.”

Caribou is important both culturally and spiritually for many First Nations. Some have a constitutional right to hunt woodland caribou when populations are self-sustaining. A report released by Canada’s Environment Ministry in 2008 shows that all caribou herds in northeastern Alberta are now non-self-sustaining. According to the Pembina Institute, “scientists predict that if management action such as land protection is not taken immediately, woodland caribou could disappear completely from the traditional territory of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and across northeastern Alberta.”

For More Information

The Nature of Things episode “Billion Dollar Caribou.”

Canadian Geographic, January/February 2019 issue, “Vanishing Point: Charting Canada’s Drastically Dwindling Caribou Herds.”

Environment Canada’s “Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Woodland Caribou, Boreal Population, in Canada.”


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