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Male caribou in Alaska (Image Credit: Dean Biggins / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Male caribou in Alaska (Image Credit: Dean Biggins / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

That the caribou is encrypted on the Canadian quarter is no small thing. The aboriginal people of Canada have been following the herds that provided them with food and various life-sustaining items such as clothing and shelter materials for over 13,000 years. The caribou are, in many ways, an example of resilience and a reminder of the intricate ways of nature we have yet to understand. Yet the survival of the caribou, like many species these days, is at risk and the solution is not easy to find.

In 2003, the Canadian government listed this boreal woodland species as threatened under the Species-At-Risk-Act (SARA), meriting extensive analysis by environmental organizations such as Canada Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the David Suzuki Foundation under the Recovery Act of 2012. Once threatened, a species will come closer to endangered status unless proper measures are taken to stop the decline and encourage recovery.

The caribou herds that once roamed the southern part of Canada and the northern U.S. have seen a decline in numbers and range since the European settlers arrived over 200 years ago.

In an extensive first report released by CPAWS about the status of the boreal woodland caribou, it was stated that only 30 percent (17 out of 57) of the herds are self-sustaining. According to the report, unless proper measures are taken, some caribou herds will face local extinction.

The biggest risk to their survival, according to the 2013 report, is industrial development, which Canada has seen plenty of in the last couple of decades. An assessment by Environment Canada that was initiated in 2008 noted a strong correlation between industrial disturbances and caribou population decline.

A second report published in December of 2014 emphasized, again, the major threat that the iconic species faces: industrial development across Canada. This includes natural gas developments in British Columbia, continued sales of oil and gas leases in Alberta and forestry roads and clear cutting in Ontario and Quebec that outpaces the restoration and conservation efforts meant to help the local populations of disappearing caribou.

Climate change adds to the challenges the caribou face. The boreal forest, which is where the caribou live, is nowadays subject to more wildfires and insect outbreaks. This creates imbalances in the ecosystem, increasing the numbers of non-endangered species such as white-tailed deer, which in turn allows for their key predator, the grey wolf, to increase in numbers and prey on the already threatened caribou herds.

The consequence of such a chain of events has led to drastic measures being enforced in British Columbia regarding wolves. Though one could argue that wolves preying on caribou is the consequence of human activity affecting the forest ecosystem, the truth is that low (and dropping) numbers of the caribou in the South Peace and South Selkirk Mountains are a scary reality.

Yet conservation groups such as Pacific Wild believe that the killing of wolves, another iconic species of Canada, will not bring the caribou back. Moreover, killing entire packs by shooting them from helicopters is a “war on wolves” and a “tax-payer funded killing program,” said Ian McAllister, Conservation Director for Pacific Wild, in a recent press release.

Image: WikiMedia Commons

Image: WikiMedia Commons

Killing wolves may seem like an appropriate short-term solution, but in the long run, human intervention cannot properly address such imbalances and, in this case, it leads to the killing of an animal highly respected by the indigenous population for many reasons.

Wolves are highly social and intelligent animals, the Pacific Wild press release explains. Killing them indiscriminately increases reproductive rates and causes them to attack more livestock and non-native prey.

In feeding themselves and their young, wolves are known go after the injured or sick animals. They play an active role in survival of the fittest, thus ensuring the health of the groups of animals they prey on. Nature’s way is straightforward: if prey numbers go low, the predators starve and their numbers will get lower too. Is it wrong then to assume that taking radical action against the predators will only makes things worse?

On January 15th, Pacific Wild started a petition to persuade the B.C. government to abandon the wolf cull. Enough pressure might just be what will save the wolves and indirectly force those in power to reexamine the direction to go in trying to save the boreal caribou.

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