What’s Really Behind Dwindling Numbers of Woodland Caribou?
By Tara Lohan
A logged forest is a changed forest, and for woodland caribou that could mean the difference between life and death.
A recent study in the Journal of Wildlife Management tracked the survival rates and population growth of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) across two areas of northern Ontario, Canada. In one area about a third of the forest had been logged 30 to 50 years ago. In the other, the only disturbances were from natural events.
The research found "substantial differences" in the survival of adult caribou between the two areas.
The animals, it turned out, fared considerably worse in the previously logged landscape — so badly that the researchers, led by John Fryxell, a professor at the University of Guelph and executive director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, concluded it would lead to a dwindling population. The unlogged habitat, however, they found "should be considerably more capable of sustaining caribou."
The high mortality rates for the caribou in the logged forest are mostly due to wolf predation, but human changes to the landscape help make that possible. Development has been a driving force behind declining caribou numbers throughout their range.
As a result of these human disturbances, the caribou population in North America is in a precarious position. Woodland caribou once ranged across half of Canada and the northern reaches of the contiguous United States. But they're now gone from their southern range. In Canada's boreal forests, the animals are listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act, Canada's version of the Endangered Species Act.
While woodland caribou have evolved to live with forests disturbed by wildfire, they haven't fared well in forests disturbed by people. One of the biggest threats is habitat fragmentation from commercial logging, mining, oil and gas — and all the roads associated with those activities.
Tar sands mining in Fort McMurray, Alberta fragments habitat for caribou. Kris Krüg / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
But here's the twist: Moose do better in these disturbed landscapes, and that puts caribou further at risk, albeit indirectly.
Previous research has found that moose prefer the vegetation that grows in these early successional forests that follow a large-scale disturbance, like commercial logging. And a higher density of moose attracts more wolves, which are also able to move faster and hunt farther by following linear clearings like roads and pipelines in these developed areas.
While moose are the primary prey for wolves, caribou that wander into these forests become another tasty target.
"The bottom line," Fryxell explains, "is that the combination of vegetation changes, increase in road density, increase in moose, and consequent increase in wolves threaten long-term viability of woodland caribou in boreal landscapes of Ontario, in a similar fashion to many other parts of Canada."
A national assessment found that around 70% of Canada's local populations of woodland caribou were no longer self-sustaining.
So what's to be done?
Last year provincial managers in Quebec floated the idea of killing wolves to protect caribou herds. Their idea met with public backlash, but wolves in British Columbia weren't so lucky. During the winter of 2019-2020, a whopping 463 wolves were killed by the B.C. provincial government for the stated purpose of protecting populations of southern mountain caribou, another caribou ecotype.
And a recently published study in the journal Biology and Conservation found that the culls were not likely to aid caribou and pointed out several shortcomings in previous research that called for such wolf-control measures.
There are other, and better, options — like habitat protection and restoration.
Fryxell's study concluded that "the most secure conservation measure would be to set aside extensive tracts of boreal forest with natural patterns of disturbance to sustain viable caribou sub‐populations."
Research shows that the animals need at least 65% of their range undisturbed to have a good shot at survival.
And helping caribou will come with other environmental benefits. Canada's 2018 federal action plan to restore caribou stated, "Boreal caribou is also considered by many to be an indicator of the overall state of Canada's boreal forest ecosystem." So keeping forests intact or restoring habitat is a proposition that would benefit not only caribou but many other species.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Priyanka Jaisinghani
COVID-19, "stay-at-home" orders and enforced physical distancing has made us more dependent on digital when it comes to connection and communication at both a local and global level.
Civic Engagement Redefined<p>Long-lasting impact requires changes from the bottom up. Civic engagement means working to make a difference in our communities to promote quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.</p><p>We're seeing how, across multiple issues, young people are becoming active participants in driving dialogues with policy-makers, on a state and federal level. In addition, they are empowering the citizens of the communities in which they reside, taking an active role in shaping the future we hold.</p>
1. Racial Justice<p>Across the U.S., we saw the rise of the racial justice movement through Black Lives Matter. Hundreds of protestors came to the streets, from New York to Nevada, acknowledging, supporting and condemning the long-existing inequalities faced by the black community. We saw this movement propel beyond the streets, throughout social media, and to the polling stations.</p><p>Young activists were demanding not only awareness but also change. In this digital space, young people started sharing resources and information for others to educate themselves about the pressing need for racial justice. They were able to mobilize support to inform, educate and shape citizen action. They shared links to petitions, offered advice for safe protesting practices, created templates for emailing authorities, listed bail funds and black-owned restaurants and businesses in need of support. They used social media to support the various needs of this movement – and continue to do so.</p>
2. Climate Change<p>The youth-led climate change has become dominant online. Every Friday, young people lead a digital #ClimateStrike to raise awareness of important legislative initiatives and create tangible ways for individuals to get involved in the fight against climate change.</p><p>As a leading example, to commemorate this year's Earth Day, youth held a 72-hour, live-streamed "digital march" with protests, speeches, and more. This "digital march" was attended by more than 200,000 viewers. Young people are pivoting their strategies and applying them to a digital space. We know when the streets are safe again, they will continue their activism by marching to raise awareness both on the streets and digitally.</p>
3. Voting Rights<p>Voting is another pertinent issue coming to the fore. In <a href="https://news.gallup.com/poll/315761/lack-voting-information-hamper-youth-turnout.aspx" target="_blank">a Gallup poll</a>, four out of five (79%) young people say "the coronavirus pandemic has helped them realize how much political leaders' decisions impact their lives"; three in five say "they are part of a movement that will vote to express its views."</p><p>As a result of these changing attitudes, young people are having conversations with their families and finding ways to get politically active. They're donating funds to campaigns, volunteering their time to raise awareness around voting and creating social campaigns to try to influence other people to vote and register to vote.</p>
How social media is used in the U.S. for political issues. Statista<p>It's inspiring to see young people around the world deeply engaged in the digital space and continuing their activism. They have played a critical role in calling for change and transformation in society. From climate to health to politics, young people are the most affected. The only way to make progress is to build back better. They're building upon existing issues and movements, creating new alliances and driving conversations and action. This generation is also building upon the same values and ideas of those before them to change the status quo and find ways to enact change for a better future.</p>
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