Study suggests indigenous hunters mistakenly blamed for caribou population decline in northern Canada

March 1, 2018 by Bob Yirka, Phys.org report
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A trio of researchers from the University of Alberta, Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Saskatchewan has conducted a study of population trends for Caribou in the Northwest Territories (NWT) in Canada and has found evidence suggesting population declines are not due to indigenous hunting. In their paper published on the open access site Science Advances, Brenda Parlee, John Sandlos and David Natcher outline their research results and suggest population declines are actually due to mineral exploration.

Caribou have been living in herds in northern Canada and Alaska for many years—and indigenous people living in the same areas have been them for much of their history. But within the past few decades, the numbers of have declined sharply. Prior research has shown that as recently as 30 years ago, the Bathurst herd alone had a population of approximately 500,000—today that number is down to approximately 20,000. Biologists and officials with NWT have blamed the decline on hunting, and therefore banned hunting by non-indigenous people in 2010 and indigenous groups in 2014. In this new effort, the researchers suggest the decline is not due to hunting, but to mineral exploration, which they claim results in noise, dust in the air, roads and seismic lines. Taken together, they suggest changes to the environment have made life more difficult for the caribou.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers looked at harvest data for the years 1985 to 2000, and compared it with population levels for the four major herds that live in the NWT. They found that as the population levels naturally changed, so did the numbers killed. When populations dropped, hunters killed less, when they rose, they killed more. They noted that even as population levels rose, hunters still held back, making it possible for the herds to rebound to previous . They further note that began in earnest in the region in the early 1990s, and as it picked up steam, caribou populations began to drop. They conclude that the culprit is not the indigenous hunters, but mineral companies. They suggest that if land management officials are serious about protecting the caribou, they need to take a closer look at the habitat changes that have occurred.

Explore further: Canada caribou herds, habitat continue to decline: report

More information: Brenda L. Parlee et al. Undermining subsistence: Barren-ground caribou in a "tragedy of open access", Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701611

Abstract

Sustaining arctic/subarctic ecosystems and the livelihoods of northern Indigenous peoples is an immense challenge amid increasing resource development. The paper describes a "tragedy of open access" occurring in Canada's north as governments open up new areas of sensitive barren-ground caribou habitat to mineral resource development. Once numbering in the millions, barren-ground caribou populations (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus/Rangifer tarandus granti) have declined over 70% in northern Canada over the last two decades in a cycle well understood by northern Indigenous peoples and scientists. However, as some herds reach critically low population levels, the impacts of human disturbance have become a major focus of debate in the north and elsewhere. A growing body of science and traditional knowledge research points to the adverse impacts of resource development; however, management efforts have been almost exclusively focused on controlling the subsistence harvest of northern Indigenous peoples. These efforts to control Indigenous harvesting parallel management practices during previous periods of caribou population decline (for example, 1950s) during which time governments also lacked evidence and appeared motivated by other values and interests in northern lands and resources. As mineral resource development advances in northern Canada and elsewhere, addressing this "science-policy gap" problem is critical to the sustainability of both caribou and people.

Related Stories

Alaska biologists research mystery of declining caribou herd

November 29, 2016

The size of a large caribou herd in Alaska's Arctic region has dropped by more 50 percent over the last three years, and researchers who have tentatively ruled out hunting and predation as significant factors for the decline ...

An alternative to wolf control to save endangered caribou

August 29, 2017

What happens when invasive and native species are eaten by the same predator? If the invasive species is abundant, the native species can go extinct because predator numbers are propped up by the invading species. This process ...

Caribou the missing piece of arctic warming puzzle

May 1, 2013

In the first study of its type in Canada, new research has shown caribou have a role to play in climate warming in the arctic. Despite declining herd numbers, caribou grazing is controlling plant growth in the arctic and ...

Canada caribou and monarch butterfly "endangered": experts

December 6, 2016

Canada's caribou population has reached "all-time low" levels, particularly in the eastern Arctic, where the animal was classified as endangered Monday along with the monarch butterfly, according to a committee of scientific ...

Recommended for you

The source of stem cells points to two proteins

December 11, 2018

Mammalian embryos are unlike those of any other organism as they must grow within the mother's body. While other animal embryos grow outside the mother, their embryonic cells can get right to work accepting assignments, such ...

'Pest-controlling' bats could help save rainforests

December 11, 2018

A new study shows that several species of bats are giving Madagascar's rice farmers a vital pest control service by feasting on plagues of insects. And this, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge believes, can ease the ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Parsec
5 / 5 (2) Mar 01, 2018
Tragedy of the commons story. Mining companies destroying their environment because the costs associated with extractive industries are usually not borne by those companies, but rather the public at large.
aksdad
not rated yet Mar 02, 2018
Correlation is not causation. The researchers don't explain how mineral exploration impacts the herds, so any suggestion that they caused the rapid decline can be rejected as mere speculation It is difficult to imagine how mineral exploration could cause such a massive decline in herd numbers. It is much easier to imagine reasonable explanations like disease, which has been observed to decimate large herds of deer. Considering the massive size of the caribou range compared to the minuscule environmental impact of mineral exploration (which isn't the same as actual mining), blaming such huge losses on exploration is premature, as well as difficult to believe. Humans aren't always the culprit.
Vidyaguy
not rated yet Mar 03, 2018
...but humans as Universal Culprit is fashionable...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.