Sunday, June 23, 2019

Caribou & Men

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The aboriginal people of NWT were hunter/gatherers when the European colonists "discovered" them. The 1st Nations were already on the land, and many said that Creator had shaped men from the mud that was found between the caribou's toes.  In those days, men and animals journeyed through an immense landscape every year, following the caribou that fed and clothed them. Every bit of what they killed was used, every scrap of sinew and hide and meat.

The great herds moved unobstructed across the land like water and wind. The people followed. They original inhabitants didn't kill for "fun;" they killed by necessity. Sometimes, when the game traveled on new path or their numbers declined (for one reason or another) the people starved. In the old days, the human population cycled up and down along with that population of prey animals.

The Woodland Caribou is a kind of specialist, different from the Barren Ground Caribou--the one you see on long harrowing journeys if you watch wildlife shows. The Woodland Caribou live and feed in old growth conifer forests where lichens and mosses grow. Trees of 85 to 150 years of age are the perfect hosts for the aerial and ground plant life on which these caribou depend. This means that undisturbed old growth forests are of prime importance to their survival.

Mining exploration had been going on in the NWT since earliest times, ("Yellowknife" refers to the gold blades some members of that tribe once made) but it wasn't until the 1990's that the digging began in earnest now with heavy loud modern machinery. The data shows it is not coincidental that this is the time when the numbers of the Woodland Caribou began to diminish. Mining didn't begin in earnest until the 1990's. It is not coincidental that this is the time when the numbers of the caribou began to diminish.

Toxic waste is a typical by-product of mining; moreover, that industry does not have a good record of cleaning up after itself anywhere, but logging at first seems to have been the hardest on the caribou. Not only noise, dust and continuous human activity, but the clear-cutting of the ancient forests--both the soil disruption and the removal of the trees -- cut severely into the supply of lichens and mosses, (some aerial, some ground dwelling) upon which the woodland caribou depend.

Roads, pipelines, seismic and now hydro lines create clear highways along which predators such as Lynx, Wolf & Bear can travel deep into what were once once (nearly) impenetrable forests. Now these predators hunt the Boreal Caribou where they have long been accustomed to resting, feeding or giving birth, times when they are particularly vulnerable to attack. This kind of habitat fragmentation affects all migratory animals which now share a planet with humans.

Caribou are named for the places the places where they calve. One herd that is failing spectacularly--much to the dismay of the 1st Nations people whose ancient way of life is threatened--is the Bathhurst herd. Once as many as 500,000, now there are less than 10,000. The numbers continue to fall.

This year there is a proposed permanent road north, again through what was once boreal forests, an extension of Highway 3 north to Whati', the haven in the wilderness for which my characters, Sascho and Yaotl, search after their escape from the Residential School. Families who live in Whati' year round now will be benefited with cheaper goods, but once again, their ancient ally, the caribou, will suffer -- and diminish.

Noise will be another as yet not much studied factor -- which affects the caribou and the other animals who are accustomed to living in the area of the proposed Whati road. Studies done in 2012 by the University of Idaho showed that simply broadcasting a recording of road noise--in this case of a heavily used climb in Glacier National Park--was sufficient to drive animals away. Some bird migrations that were documented as common in the roadless test area used by the "phantom road" study completely ceased. We humans don't have to do much it seems to disrupt Nature's once perfect balance.

Things don't have to be this way. Governments, industry and communities could work together to create local plans and solutions. Federal budget incentives could be used as both carrot and stick to assist caribou recovery. Sustainability must become the mantra for all who live and work in the NWT, if they want the caribou and some part of their ancient way of life to remain. 

~~Juliet Waldron

Volumetrics, Why noise pollution is more dangerous than we think by David Owen, May 13, 2019, The New Yorker

1 comment:

  1. Habitat loss is such a prime contributor to species survival. We are losing too many of them.