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Caribou in Canada May Be Doomed by Climate Change and Habitat Loss

Dec 16, 2013 02:48 PM EST

As the Arctic grows greener and temperatures there warm, caribou face threats of extinction unless they are able to adapt to climate change, but other anthropogenic factors such as deforestation, continue to threaten the creatures as well.

A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change details how global caribou populations have been affected by changes to their environment and by climate change.

Globally, caribou - also known as reindeer - are one species, but they consist of two big genetic groups: a northern group found in Scandinavia, Asia and northern North America, and a southern type of caribou, which is the type most common in Canada. It is this southern type, known as the woodland caribou, that will likely suffer in years to come because of habitat loss and climate change.

Study co-author Marco Musiani, an evolutionary biologist at University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, told Nature World News that even though globally, caribou are listed as a species of "least concern" on the IUCN Red List, caribou populations on a regional level are facing numerous threats. Even though there are thousands of woodland caribou in Canada, the species is still listed as endangered by COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Caribou are facing population decline, population isolation and the threats of a warming climate, Musiani said.

Last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its Arctic Report Card 2013, which indicated that while the Arctic summer was cooler this year than it has been in years past, the region is still showing a trend of greening and warming. The report card also noted that caribou are being reported in unusually low numbers.

"The decline of population is telling us a story," Musiani said. "That human-caused changes in climate are impacting caribou."

Musiani and his colleagues looked at how caribou have been distributed globally for the past 21,000 years, noting how the creatures responded to changing climate, then the researchers made projections on how caribou populations will fare for the next 70 years.

There are several primary threats to caribou. The first two, Musiani said, are deforestation and the oil and gas development taking place in the caribou's habitat. Logging and natural resource exploration are destructive to the caribou's habitat, especially the old growth forests where they eat lichen growing on stones and trees. A third, ancillary, threat is that the roads built though the caribou habitat to serve these industries not only result in the destruction of land, they provide access to previously inaccessible lands, which can often lead to commercial development, which further degrades habitat.

These threats, coupled with those brought on by climate change, paint a rather grim picture for the future of the woodland caribou, Musiani said, noting that caribou are capable of adapting to a changing climate and habitat, but not at the pace of the changes that are occurring today.

"I'm pessimistic for the caribou population," he said, but he noted that the broader point is that rather than seeing the scenario as doomed, it's worthwhile to look at the value this information carries.

The caribou is a sentinel or indicator of climate change that can be read, studied and learned from, Musiani said.

"It is telling us a story, that we are impacting the environment," he said. " It's like a meteorological station; it takes the temperature of the habitat."

We would be wise to read the information these caribou present before it is no longer available, the researcher concluded.

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