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Mighty caribou herds dwindle, warming blamed

Many caribou herds have lost more than half their number from the maximums of recent decades.

By Charles J. HanleyAP Special Correspondent / October 8, 2009

Don Russell, coordinator of a new global network formed to more closely monitor what's happening to caribou herds, is interviewed in Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territories. He says experts are focusing on "what has changed between this decline and previous declines."

Rick Bowmer/AP

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ON THE PORCUPINE RIVER TUNDRA, Yukon Territory

Here on the endlessly rolling and tussocky terrain of northwest Canada, where man has hunted caribou since the Stone Age, the vast antlered herds are fast growing thin.

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And it's not just here. Across the tundra 1,000 miles to the east, Canada's Beverly herd, numbering more than 200,000 a decade ago, can barely be found today.

Halfway around the world in Siberia, the biggest aggregation of these migratory animals, of the dun-colored herds whose sweep across the Arctic's white canvas is one of nature's matchless wonders, has shrunk by hundreds of thousands in a few short years.

From wildlife spectacle to wildlife mystery, the decline of the caribou — called reindeer in the Eurasian Arctic — has biologists searching for clues, and finding them.

They believe that the insidious impact of climate change, its tipping of natural balances and disruption of feeding habits, is decimating a species that has long numbered in the millions, and supported human life in Earth's most inhuman climate.

Many herds have lost more than half their number from the maximums of recent decades, a global survey finds. They "hover on the precipice of a major decline," it says.

The "People of the Caribou," the native Gwich'in of the Yukon and Alaska, were among the first to sense trouble, in the late 1990s, as their Porcupine herd dwindled. From 178,000 in 1989, the herd — named for the river crossing its range — is now estimated to number 100,000.

"They used to come through by the hundreds," James Firth of the Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board said as he guided two Associated Press journalists across the tundra.

Off toward distant horizons this summer afternoon, only small groups of a dozen or fewer migrating caribou could be seen grazing southward across the spongy landscape, green with a layer of grasses, mosses and lichen over the Arctic permafrost.

"I've never seen it like this before," Mr. Firth said of the sparse numbers.

More than 50 identifiable caribou herds migrate over huge wilderness tracts in a wide band circling the top of the world. They head north in the spring to ancient calving grounds, then back south through summer and fall to winter ranges closer to northern forests.

The Porcupine herd moves over a  100,000-square-mile range, calving in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, near Alaska's north coast, where proposals for oil drilling have long stirred opposition from environmentalists seeking to protect the caribou.

The global survey by researchers at the University of Alberta, published in June in the peer-reviewed journal Global Change Biology, has deepened concerns about the caribou's future.

Drawing on scores of other studies, government databases, wildlife management boards and other sources, the biologists found that 34 of 43 herds being monitored worldwide are in decline. The average falloff in numbers was 57 percent from earlier maximums, they said.

Siberia's Taimyr herd has declined from 1 million in 2000 to an estimated 750,000, as reported in the 2008 "Arctic Report Card" of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Taimyr is the world's largest herd, but Canada and Alaska have more caribou, and the Alberta study reported that 22 of 34 North American herds are shrinking. Data were insufficient to make a judgment on seven others.

In an AP interview, Liv Solveig Vors, the June report's lead author, summarized what is believed behind the caribou crash: "Climate change is changing the way they're interacting with their food, directly and indirectly."

Global warming has boosted temperatures in the Arctic twice as much as elsewhere, and Canadian researchers say the natural balance is suffering:

– Unusual freezing rains in autumn are locking lichen, the caribou's winter forage, under impenetrable ice sheets. This was the documented cause in the late 1990s of the near-extinction of the 50,000-strong Peary caribou subspecies on Canada's High Arctic islands.