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Caribou Is the Canary in the Coal Mine

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Global warming and a rush to exploit the natural resources of the Arctic are killing off Caribou herds, which is bad news for them, for the indigenous peoples who share their lands—and for all of us.

Roger Kuptana, an Inuit hunter raised in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, where Peary Caribou once ran rampant, can hardly find one these days. “There used to be a lot of caribou around here when I grew up,” Kuptana told Yale Environment 360. “But now you have to travel pretty far north to find them on the island.... It seems like this [is] happening everywhere.”

Unfortunately, it is. Across the northern Arctic, the caribou herds are dying off, and scientists and the indigenous people who depend on the species for meat and clothing blame industrial development and global warming, reported Yale Environment 360. According to National Geographic, while regional fluctuations in population are common among the migratory animals that have roamed the northern hemisphere for the last 1.6 million years, half of the global caribou population has vanished within the past 50 years.

Canada, home to half the world’s caribou, has borne the worst of it. In 2002, it listed boreal woodland caribou as threatened and launched investigations to improve the health of the species. A 2009 study by a blue-ribbon panel of caribou biologists found just 57 herds of boreal caribou in Canada. Of those, 29 were deemed not self-sustaining. In some places, including northeastern British Columbia, the David Suzuki Foundation, reported that entire herds are on the brink of death. Liv Vors, a population ecologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says the loss of caribou will be devastating for natives. “I want to emphasize the negative effects this will have on Arctic people who rely on caribou for sustenance,” she told Discovery News. “If the situation continues at the rate it’s going, it will have profoundly negative economic, social and spiritual consequences.”

Climate change is a possible cause of the decline. Warming takes its toll first on Arctic regions, where temperatures rise at a rate twice the global average. Snow often falls as freezing rain, thus forming ice that buries the caribou’s winter food—lichen, a vegetation also known as caribou moss, that coats the Earth’s northern grounds. Warmer temperatures also bring more mosquitoes and flies, which irritate the animals so much while foraging that the caribou are thinner and thus have trouble reproducing and caring for their calves. According to Yale Environment 360, Komi reindeer herders, a Russian indigenous group, complain that the animals are losing 20 percent of their weight by the time they go to slaughter, because warmer temperatures delay the winter roundup by up to two months—the lakes that herders need to cross are not freezing over as quickly as they once did.

University of Ottawa geologist Konrad Gajewski, who researches the Yukon, thinks the Inuits will have to adapt to this crisis. “People who are dependent on caribou will have to change,” he told the website “This is the kind of thing that would have happened in the past.” However, adaptation will be more challenging for modern indigenous people than it was for the Indians of the prehistoric Northeast, said Craig Gerlach of the Center for Cross Cultural Studies at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to They cannot easily relocate or change the staples of their diet, he explained. “Five hundred years, a thousand years ago, people would have been able to respond to changes in distribution and abundance whether driven by natural cycles or by changes in the climate or weather.… People are no longer as flexible because they live in permanent villages, so they can’t respond appropriately.” Land and river rights and government regulations on hunting seasons also inhibit their ability to adjust. “There are other constraints and barriers,” said Gerlach. “Who owns the land? Many of the villages are surrounded by parks and refuges so their access is limited.”

Industrial development is another caribou killer. Industrial expansion continues to invade the caribou’s tundra and boreal forest homelands in the form of roads, mining, logging, and oil and gas exploration, among other developments. And that’s not surprising, since the Arctic is a hotbed of untapped natural resources. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Arctic holds about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and natural gas resource base, about 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas resources, about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil resources, and about 20 percent of the world natural gas liquid (NGL) resources.

“The fact that the Arctic is particularly rich in natural gas and NGL may impede the exploitation of its resources, because the world’s natural gas consumers live far from the Arctic and the long-distance transportation of natural gas and NGL is considerably more expensive than oil transportation,” the EIA website states.

In a cruel irony, climate change fuels the Arctic resource rush. As the ice cap melts, previously inaccessible areas become easier to reach. “This new interest in the Arctic contains contradictions,” Okalik Eegeesiak, the president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), told The Independent. “Contradictions like the fear of climate change on the one hand and on the other hand a keen desire to exploit oil and gas resources that up to now have not been reached.”

In the face of corporations scrambling for approval to extract valuable resources once trapped beneath the ice, Inuit leaders such as Eegeesiak are pushing for indigenous people to demand more say in determining what happens to their land. “At a policy level, Inuit need to be included as equals in any dialogue about developing our lands and around our waters,” Eegeesiak told The Independent. He points out that the Sverdrup Basin—entirely within QIA dominion—“is estimated to contain 17.4 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas and 334 million barrels of oil.”

There are encouraging signs that the Inuit may be given more control. Conferences like the 2010 North American Caribou Workshop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, supported in part by the Pew Environment Group’s Canadian Boreal Initiative, suggest that Western scientists are finally listening to ancient ecological knowledge to find ways to save the caribou. However, this shift in perception is slow to register with governments, whose policies are generally swayed by promises of booms in jobs and energy. The Canadian government is reviewing a $1.5 billion proposal by French mining giant AREVA to build a uranium mine near the calving grounds of the Beverly caribou herd in Canada’s Nunavut territory. The project calls for digging four open-pit mines and one underground mine. Despite promises to create 400 jobs that will help many of the region’s vastly underemployed Inuit, many indigenous hunters oppose the mine and hope to establish a precedent for protecting other herds across the Canadian tundra, according to Yale Environment 360.

Uranium mines can be a threat to caribou because plutonium, a substance made from uranium for use in nuclear weapons, can concentrate in caribou’s primary food source, lichen, said Dr. Helen Caldicott, an antinuclear activist from Australia, at a forum organized by Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit, a nongovernmental organization opposed to AREVA’s proposed open-pit uranium mine, reported the Northern News Service. “We, as Inuit, are the most affected, as are our caribou and seals,” said Joanasie Akumalik, former Arctic Bay, Nunavut mayor, at the forum, reported Canada’s Northern News Services.

The Alaskan Arctic is also bracing for industrial overhaul. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently said the agency that oversees offshore oil and gas drilling is processing Shell’s application to drill a well off Alaska this summer, reports Reuters. “The Arctic Alaska region is estimated to hold the largest undiscovered Arctic oil deposits, about 30 billion barrels,” states the EIA website. Certain areas, however, are protected. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act bans oil and natural gas development within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the state’s northern coast.

The Russian Arctic is also facing an assault. It contains 43 of the 61 “large Arctic fields”—oil and natural gas fields that exceed 500 million barrels of recoverable oil and natural gas, the EIA website states. The Evenks indigenous people are banding together in an unlikely attempt to stop a $13 billion hydroelectric development that will flood an area 10 times the size of New York City, according to Yale Environment 360. Russian hydroelectric company RusHydro is planning to build a large-scale hydroelectric project in a Siberian region inhabited by 7,000 Evenk, primarily reindeer herders. According to a December 2008 report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “At present, there was no dialogue with the indigenous peoples.…” The document states that the RusHydro representative, not named in the report, “argued that the project was essential to the long-term energy needs of the Russian Federation.” He also emphasized the potential for job creation among local residents. Pavel Sulyandziga, representing the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, said the Evenk were being removed from their lands without any say and their traditional way of life would be affected.

Meanwhile, Alcoa, the world’s largest producer of aluminum, hopes to build a massive smelter along with hydro dams in Kangerlussuaq-Sisimiut herd’s calving region in Greenland, reported Yale Environment 360.

All of these projects will grossly infringe on the habitat of the caribou, a creature that requires space to roam and forestland in which to hide from its predator, the wolf.

The EIA website offers a conclusion, “Unresolved Arctic sovereignty claims could preclude or substantially delay development of those oil and natural gas resources where economic sovereignty claims overlap.” Inuit leaders have already claimed authority to veto a new wave of Arctic exploration. Recently, Canada forsook oil riches in Lancaster Sound, north of Baffin Island, to protect its Arctic waters. “I think the federal government has heard the Inuit concerns,” Eegeesiak told Canada’s Postmedia News. “Unfortunately it had to go through the courts. But now that we’re past that, and going forward, we look forward to working with them.”

Vors thinks caribou could adapt to climate change if humans would leave them and their environments alone. Reversing environmental damage and global warming—caused by industrial pollution and by-products like car exhaust—may be impossible, but she believes there are some common-sense solutions. According to The Christian Science Monitor, she said that we can control where roads and mines are located. Caribou calving grounds, she added, should also be marked off-limits. “Giving calves the best chance possible is one way to keep populations as healthy as possible.”

If Inuit and activist voices remain quiet on this issue, caribou health could face dire risk, possibly wiping out complete herds. According to CTV News, First Nations in northern British Columbia are worried that contamination from 1,400 abandoned oil and gas sites is killing large game, including caribou. Residents of the Treaty 8 First Nations lands helplessly watch caribou feed from the polluted ground. “They’ve been kneeling down here,” said Kelvin Davis, a hunter from Doig River, one of four Dane-zaa (sometimes referred to as Beaver Indian) communities of the Peace River area of northeastern British Columbia, to CTV News. “They’ve been licking and eating contaminated soil.” He says he found caribou meat infested with toxins. “The hide and meat was green,” he said. “And it looked so awful that we just threw it out. It’s heartbreaking."