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Spare the caribou

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About a month ago I covered a newser at Fort Whyte Centre featuring the University of Manitoba’s David Barber and his work in Canada’s north documenting global warming. Here’s the story.

Since then I’ve ended up on a couple of email lists decrying the work of Barber and other scientists who fear the impact of climate change is a lot more rapid than first thought.

The most recent comes from Peter Salonius of New Brunswick who cites former television meteorologist Anthony Watts who claims melting Arctic ice may have more to do with wind than warming.

We’ve already heard a lot about climate change and its impact on polar bears; ice is forming later on Hudson Bay and delaying when the bears head out on the ice to hunt seals.

What hasn’t been talked about much, at least in southern media, is the possible impact of climate change on the barren-land caribou.

A year ago I did a piece on the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds that range in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Experts say the Beverly herd appears to have almost disappeared – it once numbered in the thousands – and the same fate could happen to the Qamanirjuaq herd.

"The NWT government has conducted reconnaissance surveys on the Beverly calving ground for the past three years, finding fewer and fewer animals," the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board (BQCMB) says in a recent release.

"In June 2009, less than 100 adult caribou were counted on the calving ground during the peak of the calving period, compared to 5,737 animals counted using comparable methods in 1994."

Manitoban Ross Thompson is BQCMB secretary-treasurer and the board is supported by the Manitoba government. The board recently met in Saskatoon.

The current size of the Beverly herd is not known, the BQCMB adds. It says reconnaissance surveys are not population surveys – they only provide a snapshot of some of the animals on the calving ground during the June calving period. In 1994, when surveys required to calculate a population estimate were last done, the herd numbered around 276,000.

"These recent calving ground surveys suggest that the Beverly herd has suffered a major population decline," the board says. "The causes are likely a mix of natural and human-caused factors. These include the natural caribou population cycle, diseases, changes in habitat (including winter range lost to forest fires), parasites, and predation. Limited satellite-collar data indicate that some cows that had previously calved on the Beverly calving ground have shifted to the Ahiak calving ground in recent years. The Beverly herd may also have been affected by human-caused activities, including climate change, mineral exploration and development, and hunter harvest.

"The BQCMB urges everyone – governments, companies and individuals alike – to do everything possible to take pressure off the Beverly herd right away. The herd will need the most favourable conditions over many years for its numbers to increase again."

Why the numbers have to increase is simple: Many people who live in Canada’s north hunt caribou to feed their families.

The BQCMB says its next step is for members to visit caribou-range communities to talk with residents about what’s happening.

The idea is to collect more information from the people who live in the north about what should be done.

The BQCMB will write up its findings and recommendations to release in the fall of 2011.

More information about the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds.

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About Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen

Larry Kusch has been a journalist for 30 years, the last 20 with the Winnipeg Free Press. His is one of the newspaper's two legislative bureau reporters.

Raised on a Saskatchewan farm, he received an honours journalism degree from Carleton University in 1975.

At the Free Press, Larry has also worked as a general assignment reporter, business reporter, copy editor and assistant city editor.

Bruce Owen joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1990 after four years working in other media.

He's worked in a number of positions at the Freep, including pet columnist, assistant city editor and police reporter. Right now he takes up space at the Manitoba legislature.

Bruce is one of five reporters who won a National Newspaper Award for the paper’s coverage of the 1997 Flood of the Century. He's also the recipient of the 1996 Volunteer Centre of Winnipeg Media Golden Hand Award and the 1995 Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Media Commendation Award.

In a past life Bruce worked at YMCA-YWCA Camp Stephens. He has a blog where he and others write about camp and the people who worked and played there.

You can also find Bruce on Twitter where he posts and retweets all sorts of stuff.

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