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Caribou Survival Depends on Ancient Cultural Knowledge

It’s beginning to be the time of year when caribou, as reindeer are known in North America, show up on holiday cards and tree ornaments. But not all is well with this iconic species, which has been in retreat from humans for decades. Now new thinking about the conservation and restoration of North America’s wild herds of caribou combines...

It’s beginning to be the time of year when caribou, as reindeer are known in North America, show up on holiday cards and tree ornaments.

But not all is well with this iconic species, which has been in retreat from humans for decades. Now new thinking about the conservation and restoration of North America’s wild herds of caribou combines not only the latest western approach to science but also the tried-and-tested ancient knowledge and perspectives of indigenous cultures that co-existed so long and so successfully with these northern animals.

By Jeff Wells

Caribou, known as reindeer, are tough, adaptable creatures–and it’s no wonder they are attributed with the power of flight in Christmas stories. Yet the current reality is a far cry from the folklore: these animals are in severe decline.

Circling the northern latitudes of the Earth, caribou thrive in cold climates. They have hooves that allow them to easily walk on snow and ice unlike deer and moose. Their hollow hairs give them extra insulation from the extreme cold and allow them to easily float when swimming across rivers and lakes. They can survive in winter by eating only lichens.


Hollow hairs provide better insulation and allow caribou to be more buoyant while crossing lakes and rivers.

Credit: Valerie Courtois, Canadian Boreal Initiative

Some forms live in large herds of tens or even hundreds of thousands that follow migratory paths of a thousand miles from forested wintering grounds to summer calving grounds in Arctic tundra. Other forms are largely non-migratory, remaining year-round within the boreal forest or making smaller movements up and down mountain ranges.

Caribou have survived for millennia, and their success in evolutionary time scales is evident when one looks at their large circumglobal distribution.

But across the world, populations of these resilient creatures are plummeting as they struggle to cope with the fast-moving dual threats of industrial development in their boreal forest home and global warming. Canada’s federal government listed the boreal woodland caribou as threatened in 2002 and started a series of investigations to ensure its long-term health and survival.


Woodland caribou have lost nearly all of their historical range in the continental United States, as well much of southern Canada. Click image to enlarge map.

Credit: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society 

An icon of the north, the caribou’s success is an indicator of the health of the Canadian boreal, the world’s largest remaining intact forest. But to the indigenous people whose history is one shared completely and intimately with this species, they are more than that. For millennia, northern indigenous people could not have survived without an abundance of caribou. Some scientists even believe that the first people to cross the Bering Land Bridge into North America may have been in pursuit of migratory caribou herds.

“For hundreds of indigenous communities spread across Canada’s boreal and arctic regions, the loss of caribou from their lands and culture would be the loss of their identity and a severing of a vital link to their ancestral past.”

Caribou skins made tents, cords, clothing, moccasins, rugs, and countless other items. Caribou meat was an essential large food source and its bones and horns were fashioned into tools.

For hundreds of indigenous communities spread across Canada’s boreal and arctic regions, the loss of caribou from their lands and culture would be the loss of their identity and a severing of a vital link to their ancestral past.

Last month, at the 2010 North American Caribou Workshop in Winnipeg, Manitoba–an academic conference supported in part by the Pew Environment Group’s Canadian Boreal Initiative–the effort to protect the caribou took a hopeful new direction. The meeting has historically been attended largely by scientists, without much representation from indigenous communities.

Aboriginal Knowledge, Western Science 

This year’s meeting was different. Attracting 400 attendees compared to the previous meeting’s 125, it included discussions of traditional Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives alongside presentations of traditional western science.

In a session, one might listen to an academic biologist discuss the results of a statistical model that elucidated the ecological limiting factors of caribou populations, followed by a Cree or Dene chief sharing his people’s history with caribou and how it shapes their community today.

The presentations documented the decline of caribou in North America, which was well under way by the late 1800s.

Caribou2-HowardSandler.jpgWoodland caribou, which reside primarily in boreal forests, have seen their range shrink rapidly over the past century in North America. Click image to enlarge photo.

Credit: Howard Sandler 

The woodland caribou had become by the early 1900s only a lost memory of the northeastern United States and Canadian Maritime Provinces where it once roamed. Soon after that it disappeared from the U.S. side of the Great Lakes and, except for a few dozen in eastern Washington, from the U.S. northern Rocky Mountain range as well.

The loss continued tracking north in Canada so that in Ontario the species range has retracted at a rate of two miles a year since 1880 resulting in the loss of half of the province’s woodland caribou range. Sixty percent of caribou range has been lost in Alberta and 40 percent in British Columbia.

Caribou1-LarryInnes.jpgBarren-ground caribou, in steep decline, are known for their large herds and massive migrations. Click image to enlarge photo.

Credit: Larry Innes, Canadian Boreal Initiative

More recently massive declines in the numbers of the barren-ground caribou—the long-distance migratory form—have also been documented in many herds. Some of these declines have been particularly alarming with drops as high as 70 to nearly 90 percent. The Bathurst herd of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, for example, went from an estimated 472,000 in 1986 to 128,000 by 2006.

Caribou range map and caribou facts.jpgAnother take home from the meeting: academic and government scientists, conservation groups, and industry need to do more to consider traditional knowledge along with western science.

Perhaps more importantly, scientists, conservation groups, and industry should support the rights of indigenous people to determine the future use of their lands.

It is obvious that healthy and abundant caribou populations will not survive in many regions without setting aside large tracts of land free from industrial development.

First Nations land-use plans developed across Canada’s boreal forest region have acknowledged this and many would set aside vast regions for sustaining caribou and other wildlife and the traditional way of life for their communities.

Pew Environment Group has worked for a decade on boreal protection, including caribou conservation. We have learned that any caribou recovery strategy will be incomplete without all relevant experience, perspectives, and expertise.

Needs of Local Communities

Traditional western science might be helpful in determining which herds might be most susceptible or resilient, but may fail to incorporate the needs of local communities.

Many of these communities have historical knowledge of the herds that extends far beyond recent studies, having been passed down verbally for millennia.

The relationships of indigenous people with the land and environment are ancient, their observations and perspectives are crucial, and it is their input upon which this most adaptable of creatures, and the boreal itself, depends.

Dr. Jeff Wells is a science advisor for Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign. He received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University where he continues as a Visiting Fellow. Previously he served as National Bird Conservation Director for the National Audubon Society. He has published numerous scientific and popular articles and book chapters and is the author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk published by Princeton University Press in 2007.

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