Conservation Innovation, First Nations & Caribou



Cornelia Li

Thanks to Hilary Rosner for her penetrating longform reporting on these species at the edge of existence, part of the Atlantic’s Life Up Close project (and thanks for the support provided by the HHMI Department of Science Education for such a publication):

Pulling Canada’s Caribou Back From the Brink

First Nations communities are leading the effort to rescue the last remaining caribou herds from extinction.


Cornelia Li

On a family vacation last summer, driving along the empty highways of northern Idaho near the Canadian border, I saw an unlikely road sign—a relic. Diamond-shaped with a yellow background, the sign featured the familiar black silhouette of a deerlike animal. But unlike those on deer-crossing signs, the animal pictured had large antlers and appeared to be ambling toward the road, not leaping. It took me a moment to realize that it was a caribou.

Seeing a caribou wander onto an Idaho highway is about as likely as watching a UFO land there. The South Selkirk herd—the only remaining caribou herd that roamed the continental United States—has dwindled to just two animals, both female. “Not even Noah could save them,” a Canadian biologist told me. Last spring, scientists declared the herd functionally extinct.

Though that news barely registered with the American public, it was powerful: the imminent disappearance of a large mammal species from the Lower 48. And the Selkirk caribou are only the tip of the melting iceberg. Across a broad swath of Canada and Alaska, caribou populations have been plummeting for decades. The main cause: industrial development in their habitat. Today seeing caribou in their original Canadian range requires luck, patience, and often a helicopter.

One July afternoon in northeastern British Columbia, near where the Peace River flows out of the Canadian Rockies and toward the plains, I climbed into the back of a pickup truck. At the wheel was Line (pronounced Lynn) Giguere, a Francophone wildlife biologist. In the passenger seat was her husband, Scott McNay, an ecologist who has spent more than two decades trying to save caribou.

Here, in what’s called the South Peace region, on behalf of two local First Nations communities, Giguere and McNay have piloted a last-ditch effort to revive a different struggling caribou herd. It’s a remnant population of a much larger herd that once roamed the region’s forests. Trying to save this one small herd has been grueling at times—physically, emotionally, politically. Stemming the caribou declines on a larger scale, the couple say, could also take a personal toll.

Giguere and McNay live three hours away in Mackenzie, a town of about 3,500 people dominated by sawmills and pulp mills. McNay, who is tall with thinning hair and a bushy blond mustache, used to work as a biologist for the timber industry there. “Mackenzie is a small town,” he said. Saving the other herds in the South Peace region—six more, all in trouble—would require habitat protections that could shrink the area’s logging economy. Which would make the couple highly unpopular. “We might have to sell our house,” McNay said, half-joking.

Giguere, who exudes a cheerful, midwestern-style competence, agreed. “They’re gonna hate us,” she said in French-accented English.

We headed out of the tiny town of Hudson’s Hope into the mountains, and soon arrived at an active logging road. For about 60 miles, a two-hour ride, we bounced along dirt paths that grew steeper and rockier as we climbed. In the passenger seat, McNay, who hails from Prince Edward Island, dutifully called out our location over the truck’s radio every even-numbered kilometer, a protocol designed to avoid collisions. Trucks coming downhill called at the odd numbers, and soon one announced its location just uphill. “You should pull over soon,” McNay said. “Where? Shit,” Giguere replied. She found a narrow pullout and edged the Ford Super Duty out of harm’s way. A couple of minutes later, a truck loaded with logs came barreling past…

Read the whole story here.

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