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Disappearance of the Woodland Caribou: "A Crisis in Slow Motion"

Trent researcher says woodland caribou likely to be extirpated in Ontario by the end of the century

Friday, June 25, 2004

The recent shooting of caribou in Labrador has given Trent University biologist Dr. James Schaefer reason to speak out, and remind Canadians that this is "Caribou Century."

Having studied caribou for more than 20 years, this professor of conservation biology says that if we don't do something to stop the decline of this species, caribou will largely disappear from Ontario forests by the end of the century.

In this province alone, during the twentieth century, Prof. Schaefer says woodland caribou have vanished from an area nearly 50 times the size of Algonquin Park. They are disappearing, their range receding northward 34 kilometres every decade - an area equivalent to Prince Edward Island every one-and-a-half years. The reason for this dramatic range recession is the subject of Prof. Schaefer's most recent research.

"There is no doubt that we are the root cause of these changes," he says. "The decline of the woodland caribou has resulted primarily, although unintentionally, from our desire for resources from the boreal forest. We do not yet fully understand why, but woodland caribou thrive only in large and intact areas of forest - away from human intrusions."

This historic caribou decline is now the focus of research by Prof. Schaefer, in collaboration with Dr. Bruce Pond and other scientists with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). Drawing on geographic patterns across Ontario, the study will determine the degree of human landscape disturbances – such as roads, trails, and cutovers – that are consistent with caribou persistence. The project is supported by MNR, Wildlands League, Wildlife Conservation Society, and National Geographic Society.

The caribou is unique, in its symbolism; to many, it embodies the essence of the Canadian wilderness, says Prof. Schaefer, adding that humans have had a closer relationship with this caribou than any other wild animal. In 2000, the species - extremely sensitive in nature - was designated threatened.

"We have an opportunity," says Prof. Schaefer. "Caribou invite us to think large - beyond the here and now, beyond personal and immediate gratification. These days, a typical 'long-term' resource management plan is 20 years - let us think larger and work toward a century plan for the boreal forest." 

Biologists call species like the woodland caribou "indicators" as their status can bring to light other changes in ecosystems. If Canadians succeed at conserving woodland caribou, then we enhance the chances of persistence of other species and the healthy functioning of ecosystems, says Prof. Schaefer.

"Because our greatest concerns as a society are intertwined, we are also more likely to succeed at a whole constellation of other challenges - social, economic, as well as environmental. Caribou give us reason to hope; let them be a gauge of our success at a sustainable future. This is why the 21st century is Caribou Century."


For more information, please contact:

Dr. James Schaefer, Associate Professor, Biology, 705-748-1011, ext. 1378


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Last Updated June 28, 2004