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Climate Change May Be Driving Arctic Caribou To Extinction

Carcasses across Arctic landscape
Greenpeace Canada

A recent population survey has revealed the dramatic decline of the Peary caribou in Canada's western Arctic, and indicates these losses may be caused by climate change.

The survey, conducted by Dr. Anne Gunn, chair of the National Recovery Team for the Peary and Arctic Island caribou, shows a 95 percent decline in Peary caribou populations since 1961 in the Western Arctic.

Footage and photos released by Greenpeace in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, shows the remains of the animals strewn across the Arctic landscape.

Population drop from 24,320 animals to 1,100 in about 35 years
"This decline of the Peary Caribou highlights the fact that the Canadian government must take a strong action plan to Buenos Aires, and not try to evade its responsibilities, " said Greenpeace climate change specialist Steven Guilbeault, who is monitoring the meetings in Halifax. "If we don't reduce our emissions we will have to bear witness to more tragic results like the collapse of caribou populations."

Peary caribou are a High Arctic subspecies of caribou whose range is limited to a few Arctic islands. Since 1961 populations in the Western Arctic Islands as a whole have plummeted from a total of 24,320 animals to 1,100 in 1997, a die-off that may be the beginning of a vast Arctic wildlife decline driven by rising temperatures and precipitation. The best explanation for the Peary caribou decline is starvation because a deeper snow pack has prevented the animals from reaching their crucial winter food supply.

"There's warm temperature when the snow falls so there's dense snow, there's driving winds that compact it, then the caribou just expend too much energy trying to dig through to get something to eat... they just run out of energy and then they die, " said Dr Gunn.

The problem is especially acute on Bathurst Island. As the next winter threatens to take its toll, Dr. Gunn said from her research station there: "We know the caribou have declined. We know that all the evidence pointed to the problem with the winters. In 1990 the caribou numbers (on Bathurst Island) were on the way up, although they hadn't reached 3000; and now our estimate last year was 75."

Scientists have long projected that climate change, driven by releases of greenhouse gases, would increase precipitation, especially over the normally dry Arctic. In the winter, studies suggest that a deeper snow pack would result. In 1997 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of more than 2,500 of the world's top climate scientists, clearly warned that climate change may cause the extinction of the Peary caribou.

"The Peary caribou decline also reveals the vulnerability of other subspecies of caribou, and all Arctic wildlife, to climate change," said Greenpeace Canada's Arctic specialist Kevin Jardine. "The Gwich'in people of northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska are extremely dependent upon the Porcupine caribou herd, whose range is several hundred miles southeast of that of the Peary caribou. The changes which have devastated the Peary caribou may have the same effects on the Porcupine herd, which currently numbers about 160,000," said Jardine.

The Porcupine caribou herd, as well as being vulnerable to the changes in the Arctic climate, are also threatened by the prospect of expanding oil and gas development spreading east and north from the huge Prudhoe Bay oil complex on Alaska's North Slope. The burning of fossil fuels -- oil, coal and gas -- is the major factor driving climate change.

The decline of the caribou will undoubtedly affect other Arctic species, like wolves, who depend on the caribou for sustenance. Despite this latest serious climate damage impact, the federal government and several oil and gas producing provinces are discussing a wide array of loopholes at the Halifax meeting that would allow Canada to avoid its international climate change commitments. These include: the purchase of artificially created emission reduction credits from countries experiencing economic decline and the ability to plant trees or claim carbon sequestered in agricultural soil instead of reducing emissions.

Compliance with Kyoto Accords unclear
The study of the caribou came less than a month before Canadian officals joined other world leaders at the climate change summit in Buenos Aires last week. At that event on November 12, Presidient Clinton finally signed the Kyoto treaty, agreeing in principle to cut carbon dioxide emissions by one-fourth over the next 14 years.

Canada's Environment Minister Christine Stewart repeated that their nation vows to match or exceed U.S. goals, but has until the end of 1999 to produce plans. Stewart has also been criticized for insisting that Canada will fulfill "most" of its promised reductions, but refuses to estimate what percentage she means.

In October, Steven Guilbeault strongly criticized Canadian inaction on climate change. "Last December, when I was in Kyoto, Japan, I watched Canada commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012. Within five months, Canada's energy and environment ministers had reneged on that commitment and decided to study the issue for at least another 18 months. The effects of climate change, from the Ice Storm in Eastern Canada to the decline of the Peary caribou, are obvious to everyone. Canadians want to know why our politicians are failing to act yet again."

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Albion Monitor November 16, 1998 (

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