The Woodland caribou lives in the boreal forest, a 10,000-year-old ecosystem which stretches from British Columbia and the Yukon all the way to Labrador and Newfoundland. The migratory caribou of northern Quebec and Labrador are comprised of two herds: the Leaf herd and the George River herd. Together they make up more than 600,000 of the total Woodland caribou population of 2.4 million in Canada.
In most provinces, the Woodland caribou is considered threatened (a threatened species is likely to become endangered in Canada if the factors affecting its vulnerability are not reversed) or endangered (a species threatened with imminent extinction or extirpation throughout all or a significant portion of its Canadian range) by the Species at Risk Act public registry (SARA) and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The Quebec government considers its herds vulnerable, or “particularly at risk because of low or declining numbers, small range or for some other reason, without being threatened.”
Although the numbers of caribou in northern Quebec seem high, it is not so much the herds as their environment that we need to worry about. According to the Sierra Club, “Woodland caribou need very large ranges, on average 9000 km2 per herd, to thrive. They do not adapt to changes in the forest caused by activities like forestry, mining and energy development. Even low levels of industrial development within a Woodland caribou range may threaten the viability of a herd.”
Although the provincial government speaks of programs to observe caribou herds to see what they can do to help them, the logging industry continues to cut down over 290,000 hectares of Quebec forest each year. Greenpeace states that “Approximately half the boreal forest has been allocated or licensed to logging companies. The heaviest development is concentrated in the south, which is the most productive wildlife habitat. A disappearing forest means increased threats to the survival of the species that inhabits it.”
Habitat degradation, which is caused in part by human development where the Woodland caribou live, can be something as simple as building a road. As a result, other species can lose their habitat. For example, White-tailed deer have been found on caribou territory because they have lost part of their habitat. They transmit a disease called meningeal brain worm, which kills the caribou, but does not affect the deer. Woodland caribou also have, as a result of habitat loss, more trouble avoiding predators like human beings, wolves, bears and coyotes. Moreover, because lichen grows in old growth forests, habitat degradation puts the Woodland caribou at risk, since it is its only food source throughout the winter season.
Climate change is another threat to the boreal forest, and, in turn, to the caribou. Scientists are predicting the forest will become warmer, causing more forest fires and outbreaks of insects like warble flies, mosquitoes and black flies. Hinterland Who’s Who states that “Recently, there has been a lot of concern about the potential impact of climate change on caribou, especially in the north. Deeper snow, faster spring melt, warmer summers, freezing rain, and the high annual variability of all these factors will have an impact on the ability of the species to thrive in its environment.”
Government programs are vague and will take many years to yield results, but there is hope out there. Three environmental groups – Nature Quebec, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and Reseau quebecois des groupes ecologistes (RQGE) – have reached a cooperative agreement with the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Sustainable Development Institute (FNQLSDI) to better protect the boreal forest, to establish a real network of protected areas, to protect endangered species like the caribou, and to practice sustainable forest activities. Greenpeace does a great deal of work to stop logging in the boreal forest by pulp-and-paper companies like Abitibi-Consolidated, Bowater and Kruger, who are wiping out the last intact areas of the boreal forest and trashing habitat where threatened wildlife lives. CPAWS is campaigning in every province to establish new protected areas over the next 10 years that will ensure the caribou’s survival. These are just a few of the organizations that are trying to save the boreal forest and Woodland caribou.
The Woodland caribou have been forced from 50% of their land in Canada. For the past 110 years, they have lost 35,000 km2 of range every decade. Something has to be done. Waiting for the government to do something is not an option. They are only starting to observe the Newfoundland Woodland caribou, whose numbers have fallen from 90,000 to 37,000 in the last 10 years. Let’s not let this happen to the Quebec caribou. Let’s protect them and preserve their habitat.