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Counting caribou types is key to conservation

The Ontario Forest Industries Association has taken aim at the position of caribou on the provincial endangered species list.  While there is plenty to discuss, there is consensus on one big issue – the need for action based on science.  We agree.  

Where do we draw lines?  In wildlife management, this is an important question, and it has been raised by OFIA.  The answer matters – it reveals the management units within a species that might require attention.  Science can serve as our guide.  But a little history of science is useful, too.
The world of caribou biology was once a contentious place.  A few decades ago, biologists were split into two camps, divided by ideas on whether caribou were food-limited or predator-limited.  The argument among scientists was intense.  At meetings, sometimes the debate boiled over.
But with evidence, understanding improved.  Dr. Tom Bergerud introduced the notion of ecotypes, a system of classification founded on our knowledge of caribou behaviour.  A keen observer, Tom drew a distinction between two kinds:  On one hand, migratory caribou where females "space away" by migrating north of treeline and forming groups to give birth to their calves.  On the other, sedentary caribou where females "space out" by dispersing throughout the boreal forest at low densities, each giving birth in solitude.  These behaviours, Tom reasoned, were responses to wolf predation, especially on calves.  Migratory caribou distance themselves away from wolves; sedentary caribou make themselves rare in the midst of wolves.
This distinction is the most fundamental idea in caribou biology.  It is the basis for recognizing the two kinds of caribou in Ontario – sedentary (“forest-dwelling”) and migratory (“forest-tundra”) – differences that have been uncovered by MNRF radio-tracking.  Why is it important?  We have learned that sedentary caribou – animals that dwell year-round in the boreal forest – are strongly limited by predation by wolves and black bears.  In contrast, because migration is an effective escape, migratory caribou undertake extensive movements and are limited by food.  Under natural conditions, their numbers are kept in check by grazing and trampling of their summer ranges.
These differences are pivotal to conservation.  Indeed, there is scientific consensus, for some 35,000 sedentary caribou scattered across the boreal forest from Labrador to Yukon, that habitat means mature forests and peatlands.  It provides a refuge from predation.  And habitat loss is the primary reason for their decline in Ontario and elsewhere.  There is clear evidence that forest-dwelling caribou can tolerate only so much disruption before populations decline.  This knowledge is key to conserving them – and it would be a mistake to mix and manage sedentary, forest-dwelling caribou with their migratory, forest-tundra counterparts.
Caribou conservation is a long-term business.  But to paint with too broad a brush – to manage all caribou as one – would be detrimental, not just to this creature, but to the decades of conservation effort.
James Schaefer is Professor and Director of the Environmental & Life Sciences Graduate Program at Trent University.  Justina Ray is President and Senior Scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.  Both served on the Provincial Caribou Technical Committee, 2009-2014.

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