Mighty caribou herds dwindle, warming blamed
Many caribou herds have lost more than half their number from the maximums of recent decades.
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– Mosquitoes, flies and insect parasites have always tormented and weakened caribou, but warmer temperatures have aggravated this summertime problem, driving the animals on crazed, debilitating runs to escape, and keeping them from foraging and fattening up for winter.Skip to next paragraph
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– The springtime Arctic "green-up" is occurring two weeks or more earlier. The great caribou migrations evolved over ages to catch the shrubs on the calving grounds at their freshest and most nutritious. But pregnant, migrating cows may now be arriving too late.
Vors said caribou are unlikely to adjust.
"Evolutionary changes tend to take place over longer time scales than the time scale of climate change at the moment," she said. Climatologists foresee northern temperatures rising several degrees more this century unless global greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced soon.
Caribou herds have gone through boom-and-bust cycles historically, but were never known to decline so uniformly worldwide.
Leading Canadian specialist Don Russell, coordinator of a new global network formed to more closely monitor what's happening to the herds, said experts are focusing on "what has changed between this decline and previous declines."
"We've seen a number of areas where climate change is playing a big role, and we see some very dramatic trends," he said in an interview in Whitehorse, the Yukon territorial capital.
In neighboring Northwest Territories, the territorial government on Sept. 24 reported results of its aerial survey of the Bathurst herd: Its population has dropped to about 32,000, from 128,000 in 2006.
"The numbers are not getting better. There's no good news, no indication of recovery," J. Michael Miltenberger, the environment and natural resources minister, said by telephone from Yellowknife, the capital.
He said "there's a huge issue" with the Beverly herd, which numbered 276,000 in 1994, ranging over the Canadian tundra 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) due north of North Dakota.
"We've been flying north to south, east to west," Mr. Miltenberger said. "By our count, with the Beverly herd, they've all but disappeared."
Climate change is piling problem upon problem on the caribou, he said, including bogging them down in thawing permafrost and lengthening the wildfire season, burning up their food.
"The cumulative impact is bringing enormous pressure on the caribou," he said.
And that puts pressure on Canada's "first nations," who for at least 8,000 years have relied on the harvest of caribou meat for the winter larder, have settled along migration routes, have built their material culture around the animal — using skin, bones and sinews for clothing, shelter, tools, thread, even their drums.
"There are probably ominous implications for communities relying on caribou," Mr. Russell said.
Such reliance is mirrored in Siberia and northern Scandinavia, where the Sami people make a hard living herding reindeer as livestock. Freezing rains there are reported to have forced Sami to buy fodder to substitute for ice-locked forage.
Here in the timeless, silent beauty of Gwich'in country, his people may face "hard decisions," Firth acknowledged, perhaps to limit their hunt to ease the pressure.
"The future of the Gwich'in and the future of the caribou are the same," the Gwich'in often say. But even more may be at stake.
On this summer day above the Arctic Circle, binoculars found a group of caribou being stalked and circled by a hungry grizzly bear, a needy predator and another link in an intricate, interdependent natural web that may be unraveling, year by year and degree by degree, on the tundra.
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