A symbol of Canada’s North is in danger of disappearing — some say it’s already started to go.
No, it's not the polar bear, whose fate in a changing world has garnered hundreds of headlines in the past decade.
It's the caribou, particularly the barren-land caribou.
Until recently, two herds ranged from northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan to their isolated calving grounds in Nunavut in Canada's Arctic.
In the last four years, one herd has almost vanished. The second is now at risk of doing the same.
The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds used to number in the thousands. That's no longer the case. The Beverly herd also appears to have abandoned its traditional calving grounds in the Far North, something never seen before. No one knows exactly why.
Some blame increasing development in Canada's North. More people are moving in to look for oil, diamonds and uranium. That means more roads and airstrips encroaching on sensitive caribou calving grounds and migration routes.
Some blame climate change. With warmer temperatures, caribou must change their patterns to find food. That may mean fewer cows are calving.
Some also blame too much hunting combined with an increased threat from natural predators, such as wolves.
And some just blame the cycle of life -- caribou numbers dipped before in the 1950s to rebound again. That cycle may have come around again.
But they all agree on one thing: The rapid drop in numbers, particularly with the Beverly herd, is nothing less than startling.
"We're used to seeing tens of thousands of caribou and sometimes an ocean of hundreds of thousands," said Alex Hall, who lives in Fort Smith, N.W.T., and had spent more than three decades guiding canoe trips through the herds' ranges in Nunavut.
"But they've just been blown right off the map. Even the government people who do the surveys of the herds, they can't find any caribou.
"Caribou are the heart and soul of this country," Hall added. "Without caribou this place is a wasteland. They bring the land to life. People depend on the caribou for food in the North. Can you imagine if you had to replace that? They're more important than the polar bear. The polar bear is just a glamourous symbol. That's it."
The drastic drop in the Beverly herd has forced the Nunavut government and Ottawa to take a more proactive stance when considering mining exploration and other development projects.
And for people like Hall who watch the herds, and especially the thousands of Inuit, Dene and Métis who rely on caribou for meat, there's also the hope that the deepening recession will help the caribou bounce back. The downturn is already resulting in a reduction in mining and related activity. With less activity, the caribou may have time to recover.
"No habitat is more important," said Monte Hummel, president emeritus of World Wildlife Fund Canada and co-author of Caribou And The North. "But I don't think we should hitch our wagon to difficulty in the economy. The answer is to address these issues in the long term.
"We've got to get some kind of vision of what we want the place to look like in 20 years, and I sure hope it includes caribou."
The focal point of this fight is the Beverly herd. In the mid-1990s it ranged from the north in Nunavut to the south of northern Saskatchewan and the northwest tip of Manitoba near Lac Brochet. Ground zero is the Beverly herd's traditional calving grounds on the Arctic tundra, the place the herd returns to in the spring year after year, where its young are born before travelling hundreds of kilometres south before winter sets in.
The Beverly herd's numbers have dropped so drastically in the past decade some believe it may now have also abandoned its range, the stragglers joining another herd.
How drastic is this drop? In 1994, the Beverly herd was estimated at 276,000 caribou. Of that, 120,000 were likely breeding females. Fast-forward to 2008: The Beverly herd is gone. Any remaining animals are believed to have joined the Ahiak herd, which ranges further north.
What's changed on the range?
One word: uranium.
"It makes the gold rush look like child's play. And it's gone under the radar of Canadians," Hummel said.
At least three land-use permits have been issued by the Nunavut government for uranium exploration on the Beverly calving ground since March 2006. The permits have been issued as part of the government's push to develop the North and create jobs for its people.
But because of what's happened to the herd, a time-out has been called in mining exploration on the herd's calving range. Sort of.
A plan by Calgary-based Uravan Minerals Inc.'s to carry out preliminary, low-impact drilling at its Garry Lake site, 245 kilometres northwest of Baker Lake in Nunavut's Kivalliq region, is now under an environmental impact statement (EIS) review by the Nunavut Impact Review Board. The proposed site is right on top the Beverly herd's calving grounds. Uravan wants to conduct test drilling over an area covering about 3,319 square kilometres (about 331,900 hectares) according to a company statement.
Critics say Uravan's exploration plans further threatened the Beverly herd. The review board is now weighing whether that's correct. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Minister Chuck Strahl signed off on the board's review Sept. 25.
Uravan was not pleased.
"Uravan wonders, as should others, where is the value in conducting EIS reviews on entry-level mineral exploration projects," company officials said in a Jan. 25 statement.
"Uravan's efforts to gain access to lands covered by its Garry Lake mineral claims, which provides potential for uranium discovery, has become difficult and unclear, not to mention a large negative to its capital markets. These delays and uncertainties have effectively frozen Uravan's assets and sterilized its sunk cost on the Garry Lake project amounting to about $4 million. These delays and uncertainties are even more punitive, given the recent precipitous drop in commodity prices and the evaporation of risk capital. Depending on the cost, difficulty, uncertainty and time period for completing the EIS Review on the Garry Lake project proposal, Uravan shall seek compensation, either from government and/or other engaged third parties."
The Nunavut Impact Review Board's review process is expected to take weeks, if not months, to conclude.
Whatever's decided, it's shaping up to be a showdown between the caribou and development.
"This has been a real litmus test for policy in Nunavut," Hummel said. "It's been like mining is first and everything else is second. Quite frankly, there's a third choice. It's what other jurisdictions have done. Why can't we have identified areas we want to protect?"
The other jurisdiction is Alaska where the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protects the primary calving grounds and some of the wintering areas of the Porcupine caribou herd. The Porcupine herd numbers about 123,000 animals and travels more than 4,500 kilometres a year from south of the Brooks Range in Alaska and areas in Yukon Territory to its traditional calving grounds on the Arctic refuge's coastal plain and foothills on the Beaufort Sea, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The threat to the herd comes from untapped oil reserves beneath the wildlife refuge. The fear is that if drilling is allowed, the Porcupine herd, like the Beverly herd, will be destroyed.
"There's tons of similarities," said author Karsten Heuer, who with his wife Leanne Allison travelled five months with the Porcupine herd in 2003, producing the book Being Caribou and a companion film.
"It's a Canadian symbol," Heuer added. "In this day and age to have a grand-scale migration still going on, if we lose it, it will be based on a conscious decision we make. We're fully on the hook if these things are to last."
To allow oil, uranium or diamond drilling on those calving grounds invites disaster in other way, said Ross Thompson, secretary/manager of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board.
"The harvest is extremely important because of cost of replacement meat, plus a source of traditional livelihood and even spiritual values," said Thompson, also the mayor of Stonewall. "We estimate that the value of both herds to these northern communities and peoples across the ranges of both herds is in excess of $21 million annually."
Broken down, the value of the two herds for northerners is: Nunavut, almost $12 million; Manitoba, about $4 million; Saskatchewan, more than $3 million; and Northwest Territories, less than $1 million.
The governments of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and what is now Nunavut created the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board in 1982. The aboriginal-led board consists of 13 members who are responsible for safeguarding the caribou herds for those who harvest caribou for meat. Board members have said repeatedly there should be no mineral exploration or development on traditional calving grounds.
Thompson, a retired wildlife biologist and Manitoba's manager of Community and Northern Development, said the fear is if the caribou meat supply disappears, the cost of replacing it with meat such as ground beef from the south will be huge.
It will also change the culture of aboriginal people. Manitoba communities such as Tadoule Lake and Lac Brochet, mostly Dene, rely heavily on the Qamanirjuaq herd, which winters in northern Manitoba. Lately, the communities of South Indian Lake are also harvesting the herd.
Biologists who track the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds are also concerned.
Nunavut wildlife biologist Mitch Campbell said in a recent report the sharp decline in the Beverly herd was shocking. Campbell was not given permission to be interviewed by the Free Press.
In an interview with the Saskatoon Star Phoenix late last year, Campbell said what's happened to the Beverly herd threatens a way of life in the North.
"If people think there isn't magic in life, I want them to know there is," he said.
"The magic is right here, in one of the harshest places on Earth. This is a place that will kill a man if he makes a mistake, yet it sustains this sea of life.
"It's a land that looks like nothing is there, yet supports hundreds and thousands of caribou; here are these animals who deal with minus-70 windchill and predators and growing seasons where growing sometimes doesn't happen, yet they thrive. It's unbelievable. It's not comprehendible. It's magic.
"All people should get a chance to experience this."