A national committee of wildlife scientists now considers Nunavut’s Dolphin and Union caribou herd to be an endangered species.
These stocky, large-hoofed animals spend their summers on Victoria Island and overwinter on the North American mainland. Their twice-a-year migrations across the sea ice of the Coronation Gulf have become increasingly perilous in recent years, as climate change causes the ice to freeze up later in the fall and to thaw earlier in the spring.
The growing use of icebreaking in the area is also being flagged as a major concern by scientists. The herd migrates across one of the routes of the Northwest Passage, which is seeing a growing number of transits.
And the herd roams not far from the proposed Grays Bay port and road that’s being aggressively pushed by the Government of Nunavut as a means of jump-starting mining projects in the region.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada announced this week it will ask Canada’s environment minister to list the herd as endangered under the Species At Risk Act in the autumn of 2018. If the species receives this listing, it would prompt the creation of a recovery strategy and implementation plan.
But the slow speed of federally mandated protections already triggered for the herd does not inspire confidence, says WWF-Canada.
The herd was previously assessed in 2004 as being a species of special concern. In February 2011, Canada adopted this designation under the Species at Risk Act. Nearly seven years later, a management plan is now in the final stages, but has yet to be completed.
“The next step after endangered is extinct. So you can’t wait until they cross into the next threshold again,” said Brandon Laforest, WWF-Canada’s senior specialist on Arctic species and ecosystems.
The herd’s population is believed to have decreased by one-third, or 5 per cent annually, since 1997. Estimates based on aerial surveys of the herd in 2015 put the population at around 18,400.
The herd is hunted by Inuit in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region and by nearby Inuit communities in the Northwest Territories. The impact of this hunting on the herd’s health remains a big question. There are currently no restrictions on subsistence hunting of the herd, and harvesting reports remain voluntary.
The region’s hunters have reported in recent years watching large numbers of caribou becoming stranded on ice floes and being unable to swim to shore.
“There are hunters who have seen up to 150 caribou floating on a piece of ice in the Coronation Gulf and sometimes they are even found frozen into the sea ice with their head protruding from the ice,” states the draft management plan for the herd.
“Other caribou have been known to swim to land but have perished soon after emerging from the water. Of the caribou who survive, in recent years, hunters have observed an increasing number on the mainland with a thick coat of ice on their fur, indicating that caribou fell through the ice but were able to make it to the nearby shore of the mainland. Ice build-up on their fur is challenging for caribou and adds to their stress.”
Increased shipping traffic through the Northwest Passage is also described by the draft management plan as a “grave threat” to the herd, as it interferes with the formation of sea ice and leads to caribou drowning.
“One harvester mentioned that he had seen a ship break through 12 inches of ice in the third week of October during fall migration,” the report states. “Another community member explained that a further increase in shipping will likely not allow adequate time for the ice to re-freeze, since three inches of ice is needed to allow caribou to cross. The community’s concerns extend to the safety of harvesters and others out on the ice as well as other species including muskox.”
Should the area see year-round marine traffic and icebreaking in the future, this could halt the herd’s migrations and fragment the population.
Researchers have expressed doubts the herd could sustain itself year-round on Victoria Island today, although it was able to do so once in the past, when the herd was reduced to a handful of animals in the 1920s from a historic peak of about 100,000 animals. The caribou resumed their migrations in the 1980s, after shifting east from the Dolphin and Union straits they are named after.
“It is questionable whether Victoria Island could support a self-sustaining population if the ability to cross the ice is lost,” the draft management plan states.
“Although there was a time historically when migration across the sea ice stopped and caribou remained on Victoria Island year-round, caribou numbers at that time were extremely low, possibly due to icing events and the introduction of rifles. Later in the 20th century, as the population increased, their migration resumed. It is believed that the sea-ice connection may have been fundamental to the recovery of the Dolphin and Union Caribou.”
Nunavut’s draft land-use plan, produced in 2016, proposes restricting shipping traffic between Victoria Island and the mainland during certain times of the year to help protect the caribou herd. The area would be off-limits to shipping between October 15 and February 15, and between April 1 and May 31.
However, the plan’s shipping restrictions have prompted push-back from the Government of Canada, which has warned “it is essential that changes be made in these areas before the plan is finalized.”
Ottawa has offered the following objections to the plan’s marine shipping restrictions: “The restrictions proposed in the draft plan would impede search and rescue and other forms of emergency and environmental response, national defence, national security and other essential government and non-government operations and services such as community resupply; they could also impact future economic development. Further, the proposed restrictions that would impede navigation through the various waterways that make up the Northwest Passage would likely provoke a negative reaction from certain other states.”
But of all the threats faced by the Dolphin and Union herd, shipping is one of the easiest to control, said Laforest with WWF-Canada. “Climate change, disease, predation: those are all very hard to control. Industrial development and icebreaking are ones that we can control.”