Caribou previously on the brink of disappearing seem to have recovered, with all three major herd populations in the North stabilizing.
For Jan Adamczewski, a wildlife biologist with the GNWT department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), the up-turn has largely to do with hunting restrictions over the past few years.
“Harvest management, with the lead taken by co-management boards, whether reduced or closed depending on the herd, had the effect that all three of the herds went from rapid decline to better calf numbers, more cows – a more stable population. It was a rapid change,” he said.
The major herds in question are the Cape Bathurst, Bluenose East and Porcupine herds, all of which were in serious decline as of 2009. Biologists estimated the barren ground Bathurst population had dropped from 120,000 to 32,000 in three years – a 75 per cent decrease.
This year’s preliminary surveys indicate that the Bathurst herd is no longer in decline. Similarly, the Bluenose East herd has risen above 100,000 animals and the Porcupine, though still a threatened species, are approaching 1980s levels.
“The harvest never quite went to zero, but it was severely reduced,” said Adamczewski. “We think that helped all three herds, to increase the survival rate of the cows. Good calf numbers and cow survival is what allowed herds to go from rapid decline to steady up-turn.”
Harvesting was not wholly responsible for the free fall of caribou numbers in the last decade, however, said Adamczewski.
“Those big herds tend to go through big changes over time, what some call cycles,” he said. “It takes about 40 to 60 years to switch from very high to very low numbers. Traditional knowledge and science both tell us the same thing. Those changes which see big increases and decreases started happening before mining was in the area, during times of hunting and no hunting.”
Hunting only became an issue because the herd numbers were already so low, he said.
Endangered status recommended in Alberta
Alberta woodland caribou, on the other hand, could be declared an endangered species, based on a recent recommendation from the Endangered Species Conservation Committee.
The population, currently designated as threatened, is in rapid decline due to habitat loss, according to the committee. A study from early this year reported that 75 per cent of caribou range around the oilsands had been disturbed by industry, fire or both.
“We know that habitat is a major component of it and that linear disturbances can really impact the levels of caribou,” said Darcy Whiteside, spokesperson for the Alberta ministry of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD).
Whiteside said linear disturbances, such as roads and power, seismic or cut lines, can disturb reproduction and make it easier for predators, such as wolves, to hunt caribou.
The government is looking at a variety of strategies to protect the vanishing herds, including using caribou protection plans for all new activity – industrial or otherwise – in caribou protection zones, as well as integrated land management strategies that work with companies to avoid or minimize disturbances.