FORT SIMPSON, N.W.T. (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Indigenous hunter Jim Antoine has watched the decline of caribou herds with alarm, convinced that global warming is at least partially responsible for the crisis in Canada’s far north.
Caribou is an important food source for the Dene people of the northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada, as well as for other northern communities.
However, the population has crashed in recent years.
Scientists, hunters and government officials say there are several possible causes for the fall in numbers of the woodland caribou, but climate change is likely a significant driver.
Average annual temperatures have already risen more than 3 C in the past two decades in parts of the Northwest Territories, a local politician said, affecting housing, transport and caribou numbers.
This comes amid fears the world may fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet a target of limiting a global temperature rise to 2 C above pre-industrial times, which is the focus of a major United Nations conference in Paris in December, where 193 countries will seal a new deal to slow climate change.
“We live with (climate change) every day,” Antoine said from his suburban home in Fort Simpson, a mostly Dene community of 1,200 residents 500 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle.
“In the old days, it stayed cold for a longer time and there was more water on the land,” said Antoine, who was the premier of the Northwest Territories in the late 1990s.
“All of that will impact the animals.”
The caribou crisis is one manifestation of climate change facing residents in a region that environmentalists consider the “canary in the coal mine” because global warming is felt there first and often with more intensity than other areas.
The Arctic ecosystems, Greenland ice sheet and tropical coral reefs are systems earmarked as particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures.
Scientists fear greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the global average, according to a Cambridge University study in September.
Wildlife are particularly affected by the changes. The number of breeding females in one major caribou herd, which is a key population indicator, dropped by half between 2012 and 2015, the territorial government said in late September.
The herd was dropped to 16,000 from 470,000 in 1986.
Residents worry the situation will get worse as warming continues across the once frozen north.
The Cambridge study warned of a possible $43 trillion in economic damages by the end of the century as rising temperatures melt permafrost and long-buried carbon dioxide and methane seep from the ground, creating a catastrophic feedback loop.
Joseph Antoine, a relative of Jim’s with decades of experience on the land, also worries about the future.
“This decline of the caribou is not going to stop,” he said as hunted meat dried above the stove, a roaring wood fire kept the place warm and massive hunting dogs roamed the room.
“Certain areas had a huge amount of caribou at one time.”
Indigenous hunters may be feeling the affects of climate change first, but the problems they have faced over the past two decades with increasing ferocity will invariably affect larger populations further south, scientists said.
Earlier melts and later freezing of ice could also be to blame for smaller caribou populations as they disrupt migration routes to breeding grounds and winter food sources.
The crash in the caribou population is not unique to Canada, said Nancy Maynard, an emeritus scientist with NASA. Similar declines are happening across the north.
She said reindeer numbers in Norway and Russia’s eastern regions are declining rapidly, possibly because of ice melts, increased forest fires linked to warming and industrial development.
“The changes are happening so fast, and it’s dramatic how people are forced to cope,” Maynard said.
“The rate of change has accelerated, and it has been surprising scientists.”
Caribou hunting isn’t just a cultural practice honed over generations or a marker of indigenous identity in northern villages such as Fort Simpson. It’s also a key food source in a region where groceries normally cost more than double those in the south.
The decline in the caribou population is exacerbated by high costs of trucking or flying food in the Northwest Territories, which encompasses 1.14 million sq. kilometres yet has fewer than 50,000 people.
“People are nutritionally affected by the caribou (decline),” politician Bob Bromley said.
“They have been raised on caribou, and their bodies are adjusted to deal with that kind of food. Store-bought food is not as healthy and usually has higher fat and sugar content than they are used to.”
A growing reliance on store-bought food has resulted in rising obesity, declining physical activity and an increasing lifestyle-related ailments such as diabetes and cancer among indigenous people particularly, the government said in a 2014 report.
The number of people depending on food aid across northern Canada more than doubled between 2008 and 2013, according to a report from Food Banks Canada.
It said more than 3,500 people in Canada’s three northern regions — Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories — now depend on food assistance in a “dire public health emergency.”
The shift in the climate has also made hunting less safe because the ice in some regions isn’t freezing as deeply and melts earlier, said Jamal Shirley, a manager at the Nunavut Research Institute.
Many residents hunt on snowmobiles and rely on traditional knowledge of ice thickness to navigate frozen lakes, but a number of younger people, without the traditional knowledge of ice, have died in recent years by falling through when fishing.
“With all of these factors occurring at the same time as climate changes, it’s hard to look at the challenges in isolation,” Shirley said. “Ultimately, nature is in control here and human beings are vulnerable.”
However, few have faith that their situation will improve following the climate talks in December this year.
“The countries doing the polluting aren’t going to stop,” said Jim Antoine. “We aren’t the ones causing climate change, but we are the ones living with it.”