The fact that caribou numbers are declining sharply despite efforts to either slow the losses or, with luck, increase the numbers of the vulnerable species is one of the biggest challenges we face in light of a changing climate and economic advancement.

There have been a number of strategies employed to help bolster Northern caribou herds, as declining numbers set off alarm bells for the future of what is a key species for humans and animals alike in our ecosystem.

Concerns abound with Baffinland’s proposed Mary River Mine expansion, the decision for which is expected from Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal in the coming weeks. These aren’t new concerns either — for much of the last decade the potential impacts of this decision have been discussed, at length.

In the second quarter of 2021, World Wildlife Foundation Canada published concerns from Paul Okalik, the organization’s lead Arctic specialist, who stated that the mining road that serves the Agnico Eagle mine near Baker Lake is not benign when it comes to wildlife.

“Studies have shown that when there’s constant traffic on that road, the migratory patterns of the caribou are affected. But when the road is shut down for a two-week period, the caribou can travel back and forth freely. In the years when there has been no shutdown, the caribou have been unable to migrate to their wintering or summer areas.

“Considering these impacts, a permanent railway with ongoing traffic and rail cars (at the Mary River Mine) is a real concern.”

The impact of mining activities is only a small part of the overarching caribou problems, however.

Loss of habitat in southern ranges, impact from other resource extraction activities, environmental changes impacting food sources, increased predation from wolves – and in some interesting cases, polar bears – and other factors are combining to create a perfect storm of extirpation and extinction.

There is hope, however, in a piece of good news that comes from the West Moberly and Salteau First Nations in northern B.C., who have seen some serious success with their one-of-a-kind project in Canada to protect caribou mothers and calves in birthing pens.

The findings from the last eight years of research were laid out in two papers published in the journal Ecological Applications on March 23.

By proactively culling wolves – a practice already employed in the NWT and Nunavut – they found populations of caribou could hold stable, however, with the addition of supervised birthing pens they have managed to increase the population of the decimated Klinse-Za caribou herd from 38 animals in 2013 to 114 at the most recent count, an increase of 12 per cent per year.

Here is a project that bears expansion if we want to improve the odds of survival of these vital herds.

The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board just missed getting a badly needed increase in funding that would aid them in communications with Indigenous partners, as well as address broader problems – including climate change – facing the herds that they say partner governments cannot dedicate as many resources to.

Could an increase in funding also give these caribou management boards and hunters and trappers organizations the backing to build a prosperous future for the animals?

Ongoing, proactive recovery for caribou is the only strategy worth employing, and working together with industry, communities, our neighbours and governments could see lasting benefits for all.

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