© Chris Johnson

Caribou and industry in Canada’s Arctic: Can they coexist?

15 October 2019

This article originally appeared in The Circle: On the move: Migration in the Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

Chris Johnson has been studying caribou for almost 25 years—long enough to have seen plenty of changes for the migratory species, most of them negative. As a wildlife ecologist at the University of Northern British Columbia, much of his work has focused on the impacts (or potential impacts) of human activities on terrestrial mammals, such as caribou. In Canada’s North, industrial development is a cause for concern. We spoke to Johnson about the state of caribou in Canada, the threats posed by industry and what is being done to mitigate them.

What is the current state of caribou in Canada’s North?

In the Arctic, things are extremely challenging. Barren ground caribou—the migratory caribou that most people are familiar with—have declined by over 50 percent in the last three generations, and that’s only going back about 25 years. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has assessed them as a threatened species. Back in the mid-1980s, the herd that I work on, the Bathurst herd, had somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400,000 to 470,000 animals. The last census provided an estimate of 8,200 animals. To go from 470,000 to 8,200 is a dramatic decline. And it has real implications for the communities that depend on those caribou.

What led to this decline?

You know, to be perfectly honest, we don’t absolutely know. There isn’t one single factor. We know that these caribou cycle over time, so the herds do get large and then small and then large again. There could be a range of factors that caused this current decline. Some people hypothesise that drought has reduced the availability or quality of forage on the summer range, so there are fewer calves or lower rates of calf survival. Others have talked about predators, such as wolves or bears on the summer range. Probably the most political and talked-about challenge would be industrial development across the winter and summer ranges of some of these herds.

What sort of industrial development is happening in Canada, and how does it affect caribou?

It depends where you are. If you’re in the west near the Porcupine caribou herd, there’s been some oil and gas development there since the 1980s. In the central Arctic, with herds like the Bathurst caribou herd, there are a number of diamond mines currently operating that have a small but intense footprint. The mines are associated with other human infrastructure, such as camps, roads and airstrips. There’s a lot of traffic during the winter, since there is just a winter road to the mines, at least in the central Canadian Arctic. All of those factors could potentially displace caribou and push them away from the mines.

What effects do these industrial operations have on caribou and their migration patterns?

We don’t have a lot of evidence to suggest that this is the cause of the decline. I want to be very clear about that. But certainly, there will be impacts for caribou and people right across the board. Focusing on the central Arctic, the Bathurst herd migrates around 400 kilometres, and many of those caribou need to pass through or around that mining area. So, there can be this disturbance zone of influence of around 10 kilometres around these mines. If caribou are pushed away from these mines, they may spend more time moving and less time feeding, which ultimately affects their ability to have and support calves.

When we’re talking oil and gas, especially in the boreal forests of British Columbia and Alberta, the footprint of seismic lines, pumping facilities and roads is quite extensive. You’re losing caribou habitat, but you’re also facilitating the movement of caribou predators, particularly wolves. There’s been a fair bit of research showing that wolves can move more quickly along linear features such as seismic lines or roads. By moving faster and covering more ground, they have more opportunity to encounter and kill caribou.

What steps are being taken to mitigate these threats?

A lot of people have put their heads together to think about the impacts of industrial development on caribou. For example, in the central Canadian Arctic, there is a draft range plan for the Bathurst herd that’s being actively discussed, and there’s a whole series of different strategies to help maintain those caribou and their habitat. Some of that deals with road management, and at a larger scale, protecting the habitat of caribou. Some industry groups have also been fairly active in trying to understand these issues. In fact, I’m currently working on a project with the Northwest Territories government and De Beer—which WWF is actually funding—to look at the fine-scale responses of caribou around winter roads.

A lot of our work has focused on GPS collars on caribou that would tell us where they are and how they may change their movements or distribution when they get close to roads or other industrial features. Migration is important, but that’s a very large-scale response—and they only migrate by the mines for a short period of time. But what about those caribou that choose to be near the roads and mines during the winter, when the winter roads are operating? Is there some kind of a disturbance response by those caribou? We hope to better understand the zone of influence of those roads by conducting these studies.

I hope that the caribou will tell us—based on their behaviour, their physiology, their movements and their distribution—what that zone of influence actually is.

CHRIS JOHNSON has been studying caribou for almost 25 years.