Far North learns the hard way that climate & geography can’t prevent effects of global warming
EDMONTON––Neither cold and wind, short summers and seemingly endless winter, voracious summer mosquitoes and blackflies, nor the distance from urban civilization present the harshest of the many harsh realities currently facing the Canadian Far North.
Rather, the Far North is learning the hard way that climate and geography are no barrier against the effects of global warming.
Permafrost melts into muskeg swamp
Thawing tundra is turning the former permafrost plains heavily grazed by caribou into muskeg swamps through which caribou cannot wade to find food.
Toward the southern end of the caribou habitat range, drying forests are ravaged by fires racing farther and faster than any before on record. Caribou are squeezed north, never to return, as the burned regions yield to second growth more suitable for deer and elk.
Longer work seasons
Even as climatic trends erode the old ways of survival for both wildlife and the scattered Native American bands who have persisted in the Far North for millennia, longer work seasons are bringing industrial encroachment into the habitat with apparently unstoppable political and economic momentum.
The Far North now attracts more capital investment than ever before, offers more highly paid jobs than ever before to those who can get them––and poverty may now be more biting than ever before to those still trying to live off the land, for whom store-bought groceries are inaccessible and viable alternatives to the traditional diet centered on caribou meat and fish remain just a rumor.
9 of 13 herds in decline
Nine of the thirteen major caribou herds roaming the Canadian Far North are now in catastrophic decline, putting the remaining healthy herds under intensifying pressure.
Pushed into increasingly desperate efforts to slow the rate at which caribou are shot for meat, the Native American regional governments of Nunavut are trying to stop a growing commerce among tribal members in caribou meat.
Meanwhile, long in denial about the realities of climate change, the energy industry-dominated Alberta government is escalating denial about why woodland caribou are close to disappearing from much of North and Central Alberta, south of Nunavut.
To admit that energy development is to blame for the permanent habitat transition now underway would be to accept culpability, including shouldering the cost of enabling the Far North people to make transitions in way of life much more profound than the transitions already made in moving from use of dog sleds, spears, and sinew snares to use of snow machines, rifles, and steel-jawed leghold traps to hunt and trap in otherwise similar ways.
Fur trade & sealing defense
The Canadian and provincial governments have much invested, including most of their longtime fur trade and seal hunt defense strategies, in the pretense that traditional Native American lifestyles can be propped up and perpetuated, if only outside critics of extractive, exploitative, and cruel practices could be hushed.
Rather than face the truth that caribou herds in historical abundance are gone and will likely not be back within the lifespan of anyone alive today, a draft Alberta woodland caribou recovery scheme published on June 8, 2016 falls squarely into the tradition of governmental denial on behalf of resource-based industries, pretending that caribou can be recovered through the combination of “caribou farming” and predator control.
Explained a coalition of animal and conservation advocacy organizations in a June 19, 2016 collective response, “Part of the plan includes a fencing experiment that would enclose caribou within 100 square kilometers, and then slaughter many other species found on both sides of the fence,” to prevent habitat competition from animals better adapted to the changing conditions, and limit predation by the animals whom caribou in the wild must learn––as young as possible––to recognize and avoid.
“Natural predators such as wolves, as well as deer, elk and moose, would be destroyed,” the anti-caribou recovery plan coalition summarized. The estimated duration of the project is 40 to 50 years.
The adaptive species and predators would in effect be sacrificed for generations, like the victims of the more malevolent South Pacific “cargo cults,” to the hope of recovering a former prosperity which depended on conditions that no longer exist.
But in the case of the South Pacific “cargo cults,” now long gone but still notorious, the former prosperity resulted from hundreds of cargo ships running aground on reefs or sinking in shallow water, occasionally earlier but mostly after being torpedoed or bombed during World War II. The abundance of largess inspiring the “cargo cults” was transient.
In the case of the caribou, the abundance persisted from the recession of the Ice Ages until less than 30 years ago, when the irrevocability of global warming first became visible evident.
Opposing the plan
Members of the coalition opposing the Alberta draft caribou recovery plan include the Animal Alliance of Canada, the Born Free Foundation, the Cochrane Research Institute, Earthroots, the Humane Society International/Canada arm of the Humane Society of the U.S., the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and Wolf Awareness.
“Through Canada’s Species At Risk Act,” the coalition said in a media release, “the Government of Alberta is compelled to contrive a strategy to recover threatened subpopulations of mountain caribou and implement it by 2017.”
95% of range disturbed
The published proposal includes draft plans for the Little Smoky and A La Peche caribou ranges .
“According to the 2012 federal Recovery Strategy for Caribou,” the coalition reminded, “95% of critical caribou habitat in the Little Smoky range is already disturbed by people and their activities. Most of these disturbances are caused by industrial development and infrastructure, including forestry and the energy sector.
“Habitat conservation & connectivity”
“The groups agree with Dr. Gilbert Proulx,” the coalition said, identifying Proulx as “an independent wildlife specialist who believes that the first and major issue that needs to be addressed is habitat conservation and connectivity.”
Proulx, of the Alpha Wildlife Research Institute in Sherwood Park, Alberta, may be best known for research done for the Fur Institute of Canada in defense of the trapping industry.
But precisely because Proulx has previously been politically aligned opposite most of the anti-Alberta draft caribou recovery plan coalition members, his perspective may be of particular note.
Said Proulx, “Killing wolves and fencing caribou in predator-free areas are not solutions that will resolve the main factor impacting on caribou persistence. However, these approaches are significantly impacting biodiversity and the welfare of wildlife communities. Claims of the efficacy of previous wolf culls in the name of caribou recovery have been determined to be unfounded in the past, and trials have been ineffective.”
Experiments in fencing off caribou habitat, and habitat for reindeer, their Old World close cousins, have been attempted without noteworthy success for more than 100 years.
Originally the goal was to re-adapt caribou and reindeer from a wild existence to becoming Far North livestock, based on archaeological indications that some reindeer have been semi-domesticated in Lapland for perhaps as long as 2,000 years.
Proponents of “alternative” livestock still routinely persuade entrepreneurs with more money to invest than economic sense to buy and breed small reindeer herds, much as others are sold on trying to raise ostrichs, emus, and alpacas, among other “alternative livestock” frequently featured in pyramid scheme speculation.
No history of success
Reality, though, is that neither caribou nor reindeer have ever proliferated successfully over open range after birthing in semi-captivity.
And killing wolves and other predators, already intensively practiced in Alaska, British Columbia, and Alberta for decades, has no more history of success.
“Will destroy entire ecosystems”
“These management experiments will destroy entire ecosystems, and many of the animals within. I can’t imagine that this was ever the intent of the Species at Risk Act,” said Raincoast Conservation Foundation senior scientist Paul Paquet, a longtime critic of similar programs in Alaska.
Observed Hannah Barron, a director of both Earthroots and Wolf Awareness, “More than 1,000 wolves have been killed under the guise of protecting the Little Smokey Caribou herd over the past 11 years with no significant increase in caribou numbers. Wolves have been strangled [in snares], gunned down from helicopters, and poisoned using carcasses laced with strychnine. Snares set for wolves also strangled 676 other animals, including two caribou.”
“Simply ‘dirty oil'”
“This is not caribou recovery, this is simply ‘dirty oil’ and the world needs to know about it,” commented Wolf Awareness executive director Sadie Parr.
Agreed Animal Alliance of Canada director Liz White, “The recovery plan proposes a bloodbath so that industry can continue at all costs. Outside of these ‘caribou farms,’” meaning the 100-square-kilometer protected habitats, “industry will continue to fragment what little is left of caribou habitat into land that supports the very animals targeted for killing.”
Meanwhile, “The Bluenose-East [caribou] herd in the western Arctic has declined by 80% over the last decade to an estimated 40,000 animals,” reported the Nunatsiaq News, published from Iqaluit on Baffin Island, the Nunavut capital, on May 30, 2016.
“According to Government of Nunavut aerial surveys in 2015, the Qamanirjuaq (pronounced kam-uh-NARE’-ee-ack) herd’s population,” ranging from northern Saskatchewan to Queen Maud Gulf on the central Arctic coast, “has dropped to an estimated 264,000 animals, down from 349,000 in 2008 and nearly 500,000 in 1994,” the Nunatsiaq News elaborated.
“Wastage & internet sales”
“One of the things we’re really concerned about is wastage and internet sales from the Kivalliq region over to Iqaluit,” said Ross Thompson, executive director of the Beverly & Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board.
“Inuit [Native Americans] have the right to harvest and sell meat under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the board does not dispute that,” the Nunatsiaq News added, but acknowledged that “The informal but growing meat sale industry in Nunavut is controversial. Some hunters oppose the practice saying it goes against traditional Inuit values. Others say in a place where jobs are scarce, it’s a valuable and accessible income. Thompson said they have no hard numbers, but based on anecdotal evidence from community members, they suspect the amount of meat sold and shipped out of Kivalliq might exceed the subsistence hunt in that region.”
Airlines asked to report
Six weeks of data-gathering later, reported Bob Weber of Canadian Press, “Wildlife managers are concerned a booming online trade in caribou meat may pose a threat to one of the last healthy herds on the Canadian tundra. Hunters in the central Arctic have been taking so many animals from the Qaminirjuaq herd and sending the meat to parts of Nunavut where the hunt is restricted that airlines have been asked to report on their shipments.”
Continued Weber, “The tiny community of Coral Harbour on Southampton Island has been shipping out between 5,000 and 7,000 kilograms of meat in the winter months, said Steve Pinksen of Nunavut’s Environment Department. That’s between 1,500 and 2,000 animals a year, roughly equal to what the community consumes itself. Meat is also being shipped from Arviat, Rankin Inlet and Naujaat, formerly known as Repulse Bay. Most of the meat ends up in the territorial capital of Iqaluit on Baffin Island,” which has a local caribou hunting quota of zero, established after biologists discovered that the Baffin Island caribou population had fallen by 95%.
North American bison
People familiar with the decline of the North American bison might recognize a parallel. First bison habitat was squeezed from the east by steadily encroaching enclosure of the once open range to create farms. Cattle supplanted bison as the major grazing species. Cattle diseases spread among the bison, including brucellosis, for which the last major North American reservoirs are now the elk and bison of Yellowstone National Park.
Pushed into the badlands of the eastern Rocky Mountains, which had previously supported just a tiny fraction of the total North American bison population, bison were within less than a generation shot by market hunters to the verge of extinction.
No realistic chance of imminent recovery
Native Americans had little part in extirpating bison, having then had little access to the purchasers of bison hides and meat. They are not the major factor in the decline of caribou now.
But traditional cultures based on caribou meat consumption may nonetheless soon find themselves having to change their dietary staples, somehow, because the habitat to support half a million caribou, or even half that many, is rapidly vanishing, with no realistic chance of imminent recovery.
[Public comments on the Alberta draft caribou recovery plan are due by August 5, 2016, c/o [email protected]).]