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 Teri Schultz
Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
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