|Endangered Species of Canada Stories by the Edmonton Journal, December 1999
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A GUIDE TO WILDLIFE AT RISK
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Species, a federal advisory group, has created a list of 340 animals and plants that are in some jeopardy. Here are the categories the committee uses:
Extinct The species no longer exists in Canada
Extirpated A species no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but can be found elsewhere.
Endangered A species that faces imminent extirpation or extinction.
Threatened A species likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed.
Vulnerable A species of special concern because of characteristics that make it particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events.
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The Edmonton Journal
November 30, 1999.
Regal looking Peary now hard to find in Arctic
Bad weather has decimated herds, but in the past theyve managed to bounce back
Journal Staff Writer
Ranger tarandus pearyi
In the summer of 1996, Frank Miller descended on the gravelly shores of Bathurst Island at his High Arctic base camp where he had staged his research on the endangered Peary caribou for the past eight years.
During his first two weeks of surveying ten of the regions islands by helicopter, Miller saw plenty of the succulent purple saxifrage flowers the caribou depend on in cool days of summer, but precious few animals, and not a single new born calf.
What he did encounter with alarming regularity were muskox and caribou carcasses along the fog shrouded, icy shorelines and in the interior.
There were nearly 300 in all by counts end. Most of the animals had died on land, but other muskoxen had taken their last breath on the sea ice, apparently in a desperate effort to find new sources of food. In some cases, the muskoxen were still standing in deep snow, frozen stiff, and leaning against each other like statues that had been knocked over against each other by the wind.
"It was one of the most strange and gruesome things Id ever seen as a biologist," Miller recalls.
"They had apparently tried to dig down to get at some food, and when they discovered there was nothing there but sea ice, they just gave it up. The snow then melted, and eventually hardened around their bellies, and thats why some of them were still standing upright after they had died."
By the time Miller had completed his survey, he had found just 91 caribou and 97 muskoxen still alive. Assuming the survey was representative of what was happening elsewhere on the island complex where the Peary caribou live, he calculated that there were only about 500 caribou and just 430 muskoxen left.
In more grisly terms, it meant that in a region covering some 11,000 square miles, the Peary caribou population had declined by 85 per cent and the muskox population by 70 per cent.
Two decades of steady recovery in the population of the Peary caribou had been wiped out, leaving a unique mammal more vulnerable than ever.
Not leaving on a low note
The 61 year old Miller had planned at least three more years in the field continuing his research. The program, however, had been steadily losing priority with the federal government, and he was told that he would be retired later the following year.
But after 31 years of researching caribou in Canadas far north, Miller wasnt about to end his career on such a low note.
In the summer of 1998, he and Northwest Territories biologist Anne Gunn brought in a small scientific crew on a shoestring budget to follow up on the situation.
What little hope they had coming in for a recovery was dashed after 40 hours of helicopter flying and three weeks time on the ground. In a region where they had estimated 3,000 caribou and 1,500 muskoxen just four years earlier, this time they could account for only 43 caribou and 14 muskoxen in total.
The Peary is the smallest of all caribou and found only in Canada. What it lacks in size, however, it makes up for in looks.
No other animal looks as regal in its long, dense and silky white coat of winter, or as fine in its sleek, multi hued coat of summer.
Given the federal, provincial and territorial governments commitment to an accord for the protection of species at risk in Canada, one might have expected more attention being paid to this animal. Not only is it unique to Canada, its demise could well be attributed to the climate change the federal government is committed to combating.
Political indifference, aboriginal sensitivities and disagreements among caribou biologists have thus far produced nothing in the way of concrete measures.
When Miller was first introduced to the world of the Peary caribou in 1972-74, he had every reason to believe his research would be routine and relatively uneventful.
A little more than a decade earlier, Canadian Wildlife Service colleague John Tener had estimated the population on the Arctic islands to be a healthy 26,000.
But when Miller embarked on his own survey that first summer in the field, there were few adults and virtually no calves to be found anywhere.
"I got real nervous," he concedes. "It was my first time out on this survey and I thought, My God, I must be screwing up. But I was pretty sure that I couldnt be missing that many animals. Something had to be wrong."
Miller had seen first had the extreme snow and ice conditions of late winter and spring, as he was doing aerial surveys and ground studies during each month from March through August 1974.
The meteorological records supported his impressions and also indicated extreme conditions in autumn and early winter 1973.
As it turned out, the autumn, winter and spring of 1973-74 were unusual ones, punctuated by episodes of freezing rain, heavy snowfall, and recurring periods of thawing and freezing that transformed many island sin the High Arctic into a giant, snow covered skating rink.
The ice was so thick in some places that it would have been virtually impossible for the animals to dig through to the vegetation.
What happened in the summer of 1996 then did not come entirely as a surprise.
In fact, Miller says that with the benefit of hindsight, he could see it coming.
In October November 1995, there had been reports from the High Arctic of 100 or more Peary caribou that had suddenly bolted from Bathurst Island 100 km across the sea ice towards the tiny Inuit community of Resolute on Cornwallis Island, only to be greeted by the guns of hunters.
Evidently, it was an act of desperation on the part of the caribou. Cornwallis is little more than a large, sparsely vegetated gravel bar, and had the animals not been killed by rifles, they would almost certainly have perished from the same unfavourable snow and ice conditions that prevailed on Bathurst Island.
Assuming that something similar had happened in the winter of 1995-96, Miller once again looked at the meteorological records and found that freezing rain in September and October left an inch of ice cover over most of the Resolute area. If the same had happened on Bathurst and the other islands, Miller concluded, it would have locked up the vegetation just as it had done in the extremely bad year of 1973-74.
Concerned that another harsh winter might push the animals to the brink of extinction, the Government of the Northwest Territories decided in the fall of 1996 to capture 25 animals on Bathurst Island, and transport them to Calgary as breeding stock for a recovery program in the future. But for several reasons, Operation Rescue was put on hold.
That anything will be done soon is in further doubt now that responsibility for Peary caribou is being largely turned over to the new government of Nunavut.
Mike Ferguson, the Nunavut biologist who has assumed scientific responsibility for the Peary caribou, has had a testy relationship with both Gunn and Miller.
He is not convinced that the animals outside of the Bathurst Island region are in trouble. Ferguson isnt ruling out the possibility of another relocation effort.
"The fact is everything is on the table right now in terms of management options," he says.
Both Miller and Gunn, however, believe theres nothing to lose in attempting Operation Rescue.
Just what the future holds for one of the worlds most endangered animals is difficult to predict.
If the extreme weather conditions experienced in the Arctic in recent years are a symptom of a gradual warming of the planet, then we may well be witnessing the end of the Peary caribou. Warmer and wetter autumns followed by frequent freezing and thawing will only make life that much tougher for them.
Miller still has hope the caribou will bounce back.
"These animals have been around for a long time, and as bleak and inhospitable as their environment seems to be, theyve managed to survive, and even bounce back when their numbers are down," he says.
"That, I think, says a lot about this animal."