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Arctic Ecozone+ Status and Trends Assessment

Human Influences

Stressors/cumulative impacts

Stressors are discussed throughout this report, with a common theme of growing evidence of impacts of climate change. Some of the impacts, such as those from melting permafrost, are only beginning to be observed and monitored, though there is a good body of research linking climate variability and change with ecological processes, structure, and composition. As all climate model projections show continued above global average increases in temperatures in the Arctic, climate change will continue to be the major large-scale stressor for the foreseeable future. Other stressors are also widespread, including contaminants from long-range atmospheric transport, but appear to be of lesser magnitude in terms of impacts on ecosystems. At the local and regional level, stressors that lead to habitat fragmentation and disturbance, overharvest, and localized contamination can also be significant for ecosystems.

These stressors interact, often in complex and unpredictable ways. Freshwater ecosystems in the Arctic Ecozone+, for example, are undergoing changes related to climate change, but they also are affected by other human activities, including depletion of stratospheric ozone, deposition of persistent organic pollutants and mercury transported through the atmosphere, and land and watercourse disturbance associated with development activities (Schindler and Smol, 2006). Projected warming and changes in precipitation will result in higher contaminant loads and biomagnifications, while changes in ice cover are predicted to increase ultraviolet radiation levels, resulting in cumulative and/or synergistic effects on aquatic ecosystem structure and function (Wrona et al., 2006). The range of human stressors of concern for terrestrial systems is illustrated below in the section on Main threats to caribou. There are, of course, bound to be unexpected and poorly understood stressors affecting Arctic ecosystems--for example, long-term transport of nitrogen compounds (pollutants) may increase nitrogen availability in tundra soils, interacting with warming temperatures to alter habitat for Arctic species.

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Main threats to caribou

This section is mainly summarized and updated from the ESTR technical thematic report Northern caribou population trends in Canada (Gunn et al., 2011c). Because migratory tundra caribou mainly winter to the south of the Arctic Ecozone+, some of this discussion also focuses on the taiga ecozones+.

In northern Canada, migratory tundra caribou typically have large annual ranges with annual migrations of hundreds to thousands of kilometres linking their seasonal ranges. While caribou are exposed over the spatial scale of their annual range, they are also accumulating responses to environmental influences over their lifetime (typically about 15 years for an adult female). While much attention has focused on the effects of industrial exploration and development on caribou, the extent and severity of effects depend on the vulnerability of caribou. Vulnerability changes during the cycles of caribou abundance as, during declines and the phase of low numbers, factors that influence caribou births and deaths can have stronger effects. The challenge for hunters, biologists, managers, and co-management boards, therefore, is to understand the vulnerability of their herds, keeping in mind all these factors and assessing not only what the impact might be on the herds, but also what the impact will be on those communities that depend on the abundance of caribou. In the following sections, we present some examples of how ecological influences such as predation, harvesting, and parasites change caribou vulnerability and how threats from development, contaminants, and climate change affect caribou.

Predation, parasites, disease

Although predation, diseases, and parasites are part of the ecology of migratory tundra caribou, they are listed here as threats because their role in influencing trends in caribou abundance interacts with stressors related to human activities. The interactions work in a number of ways, both at the individual and herd scales, and include variables such as whether predation is additive or compensatory to harvesting (meaning whether interactions cause the overall effect of predation plus harvesting to be more or less than the sum of the individual effects). The major predators of migratory tundra caribou are wolves and grizzly bears, but wolverines, lynx, and eagles all take caribou as well. As caribou abundance declines, the role of wolves and bears has greater effect on the caribou until the numbers of predators themselves decline (Bergerud et al., 2008).

Information on trends in predation rates or numbers of predators is patchy, but some comparisons over time are available using a relatively simple index. For example, Heard (1992) reported an average of eight wolves seen per 100 hours of flying surveys in the Queen Maud Gulf area during the 1980s, lower than the 24 to 33 wolves/100 hours observed during surveys of the Ahiak Herd in 2007 and 2008 (Poole et al., 2013). For the Bathurst Herd, wolf sightings observed for 16 years between 1987 and 2008 during late winter aerial surveys to estimate caribou calf survival suggest no consistent trend in either wolf sightings or mean pack size (Figure 99). During that time, the numbers of caribou declined 90% and the number of wolves seen at their dens and the number of occupied dens declined (D. Cluff, pers. comm., 2012). Thus, while caribou were declining and wolf populations were probably declining in the region,  the sightings of wolves in the vicinity of caribou did not decline. This observation suggests that predation rates were maintained, which would have increased the vulnerability of the caribou herd.

Figure 99. Lack of a trend in wolf sightings and pack size during peak abundance and the decline of the Bathurst Caribou Herd, 1987 to 2008.

Data are from observations during late winter surveys.

Source: data from Williams and Fournier (1996); Gunn (2013c); B. Croft, pers. comm., 2010
Long description for Figure 99

This bar graph shows wolf sightings and pack size during the peak abundance and the decline of the Bathurst Caribou Herd for the years 1987 to 2008 (with no data from 1996 to 2002). The graph suggests no consistent trend in either wolf sightings or mean pack size relative to caribou abundance.

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Information on the status and trends of diseases and parasites in migratory tundra caribou is fragmentary among herds. Knowledge about if and how disease rates change when caribou abundance changes is particularly lacking. We do, however, know that in at least one instance, a disease has played a role in increasing the vulnerability of caribou. On Southampton Island, caribou abundance and condition are monitored and a high incidence of brucellosis in both sexes is implicated in the herd’s decline (see section on Wildlife diseases and parasites on page 62).


A recurring theme in wildlife and fisheries management over the centuries is that numerical abundance is not always a hedge against declines to the point of local extinctions. One has only to think of salmon, northern cod, and plains bison to remember that numerical abundance carries the risk of over-confidence--“there’s still lots”. What determines persistence is rate of change, not the size of the starting population. Another contribution to confidence among users is that the caribou, being cyclic in their abundance, have been low in number before and have come back. Given changing environmental conditions, however, the past may not be a secure guide to the future.

Changes that have occurred on caribou ranges since the 1970s that influence caribou vulnerability include an overall increase in the number of people and shifting socio-economic patterns (such as wage-earning), both of which may influence harvest levels. The human populations of the Arctic and the three taiga ecozones+ have all increased, the combined population almost doubling, from 59,390 people in 1971 to 107,213 people in 2006 (Environment Canada, 2009b). The increase in number of people is reflected in the increasing size of larger communities (centralization) and increased seasonal and all-year road developments, especially in the Northwest Territories and northern Saskatchewan, on the southern edges of the winter ranges in the taiga and boreal ecozones+ (BQCMB, 2011; Trottier, 2011, pers. comm.).

The increasing number of people, a shift to wage-earning, and changing technologies for hunting (snowmobiles, winter roads, and rapid communications) have likely altered hunting effort and made finding and harvesting caribou more efficient. The relationship between hunting effort and harvest levels, however, is largely unknown and this limits understanding of the effects of hunting. Most of the understanding about the importance of measuring hunting effort is from a range of exploited species other than caribou (Ludwig, 2001). Schooling fish have parallels with gregarious caribou in relation to harvest vulnerability. For pelagic fisheries, constant yield harvests can lead to population collapses if harvesting effort is not directly related to local abundance (Mullon et al., 2005).

Understanding how harvest can add or subtract from herd vulnerability is complicated as there are few measures of hunting effort, and data on harvest levels are sporadic over time. Levels of, or trends in, wounding loss are unknown, although increased effort in management planning includes education and help from Aboriginal elders about respectful hunting practices (e.g., PCMB, 2009; Tlicho Government and Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Government of the Northwest Territories, 2011). Harvest levels at the community scale vary; this is related to annual variability of the distribution of caribou on their seasonal ranges. In Canada’s territories, most hunters are Aboriginal and, under Canada’s constitution and land claims settlement acts, their hunting rights are respected. Generally, Aboriginal hunters can harvest unlimited numbers of caribou unless there is a conservation issue.

A second category of hunters is resident hunters. The trend is to fewer resident hunters in the Northwest Territories (Government of the Northwest Territories and NWT Biodiversity Team, 2010) as a result of restrictions following the decline of herds. The third category of hunters is under the heading “commercial”, which can include harvesting for commercial meat sales and guided, outfitted hunts by non-residents. The level of commercial harvesting has varied among herds. Commercial use has been progressively reduced as the herds have declined and currently there is no commercial harvesting of any Northwest Territories barren-ground herd (Department of Environment and Natural Resources, 2006) and commercial harvesting has been sharply reduced in Nunavut (Coral Harbour, 2011; Dumond, 2011, pers. comm.).

Declines in caribou numbers have led to management measures that consider all user groups and that are tied to herd trend and herd abundance (see Figure 100, for example).

Figure 100. Adjusting management based on herd size and population trend: Harvest management plan for the Porcupine Caribou Herd in Canada

Key elements of management actions, by colour code: Green “Take what you need”; Yellow “Voluntary bulls only” harvest; Orange “Mandatory bulls only and harvest limits”; Red “No hunting”.

Source: Porcupine Caribou Management Board presentation from Eamer and Russell (2013), and Porcupine Caribou Management Board (2010)
Long description for Figure 100

This figure shows a harvest management colour chart for the harvest management plan for the Porcupine Caribou Herd.  The text at the top reads: “Management Goal: we want to try to conserve the Porcupine Caribou Herd by adjusting the number and sex of caribou we harvest based on the changes in the herd size and population trend.” The chart has four colour codes which are based on herd size: Green (115,000 caribou): “Take what you need”; Yellow (80,000 caribou): “Voluntary bulls only” harvest; Orange(80,000 caribou): “Mandatory bulls only and harvest limits”; Red (45,000 caribou): “No hunting”.

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Along with increasing numbers of people on the caribou ranges, there are trends toward more exploration and resource development activity. Most attention has focused on activities associated with mineral and hydrocarbon exploration and development, and caribou behavioural responses to these human activities are quite well known (Wolfe et al., 2000a; Stankowich, 2008). Impacts from power lines and shipping have received less attention. The lack of information of impacts from railway development became evident in the Mary River Project (Baffinland) Environmental Impact Assessment (Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation, 2012), leading to conditions of approval that included adaptive management measures to be enacted if unanticipated negative effects on caribou are observed.

As the rate of human activities increases, our lack of understanding about the cumulative effects on caribou at the individual and the herd level becomes a more worrisome gap (Cameron et al., 2005). Limited progress has been made in measuring and managing these cumulative effects (Festa-Bianchet et al., 2011; Gunn et al., 2011a). Examples of development activities and concerns for caribou populations are described below.

Mineral exploration activities boomed in the 1990s on the range of the Bathurst Herd and over the period 2003–2008 for the Beverly Herd’s calving and summer ranges. The timing of the herd’s decline coincided with an increase in mining exploration and development. While there had been mining exploration for decades, the discovery of diamonds in 1991 triggered a surge in exploration with an increase in camps, aircraft, and helicopters on the tundra ranges of the Bathurst herd (pre-calving to fall ranges). At the peak, 118,124 km2 of new claims had been staked in 1993 in the NWT (G. Bouchard, Natural Resources Canada., pers. comm.). Since 1996, four diamond mines have been built and are operational on the Bathurst Herd's summer range. Three of the diamond mines are large open-pit mines and their activities have reduced the occurrence of caribou in their vicinity over a greater distance than expected (Johnson et al., 2005).

Elsewhere on caribou ranges, exploration and mining of uranium has been the greatest concern in the past among communities that harvest Beverly caribou. Uranium exploration and development has occurred for decades on the Beverly winter range in northern Saskatchewan. Mineral exploration has been increasing over the past 10 years on the ranges of both the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut (BQCMB, 2010). As of May 2010, there were many active prospecting permits, mineral claims, and mineral leases on the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq traditional calving ground (BQCMB, 2010).

The possibility of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development (a proposal that has been under consideration in the United States since the late 1970s) has the potential to constitute a major threat to the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The "1002" area on the Alaskan coastal plain contains both high potential for hydrocarbon deposits and contains the most sensitive habitat for the herd during the calving and post-calving periods (Griffith et al., 2002).

Roads, mineral exploration, mines, and hydrocarbon production are land use activities whose effects on caribou may accumulate over time. Although there are concerns about those cumulative effects, progress on measuring them and managing them is barely underway. In particular, roads can increase human access and act as partial barriers to caribou movement. Table 17 indicates main caribou issues related to three Nunavut development prospects.

Table 17. Examples of industrial projects and caribou issues, 2012.
ProjectLocationCaribou issue
Mary River Iron MineBaffin Island, eastern NunavutNorth Baffin caribou: low in 70-year cycle; railway effects on movement
Kiggavik Uranium MineBaker Lake, central NunavutMultiple herds: new road access through summer habitat; increased harvest pressure
Izok Corridor Zinc MineWestern mainland NunavutBathurst caribou: road at edge of traditional calving ground
Dolphin and Union caribou: road in winter range

Source: Introduction by M. Setterington, in Eamer et al. (2013)

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It is uncertain as to how longer-distance and local sources of contaminants and pollutants influence the vulnerability of caribou. While levels are monitored and levels are mostly low, synergistic effects are uncertain and how contaminants may interact with health and condition is unknown. The Canadian Northern Contaminants Program has been active in monitoring Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), heavy metals, and radionucleotides for the last three decades. The following account is derived from the NCP summary report (Northern Contaminants Program, 2003), except where noted. Some 15 different caribou herds across Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon were monitored during the 1990s through two large monitoring programs; additional monitoring has been undertaken since then for some herds (Gamberg, 2009). Assessments of risk to human health from contaminants show that caribou is a safe and nutritious food choice across northern Canada (Donaldson et al., 2010).

Persistent organic pollutants such as DDT, PCBs, dioxins, and furans were found at only very low levels in caribou (often too low to be detected at all) and are not of concern for either caribou or human health (see also Gamberg et al., 2005a).

Some heavy metals, however, are found at elevated levels in caribou, though not to the same extent as in some marine mammals. There are wide variations in the levels of metals from herd to herd, probably due to the variation of levels in the underlying geology. Cadmium levels tend to be higher in the kidneys and livers of the Beverly caribou in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, compared to the levels in other herds. Natural sources of cadmium in the underlying rocks in the area are likely responsible. This cadmium accumulates in lichen which is then eaten by the caribou. Mercury levels show no clear pattern (Gamberg et al., 2005a), with the highest levels found in the Beverly Herd and in Meta Incognita Peninsula caribou (part of the South Baffin population). In the central and northeastern parts of northern Canada, levels of mercury in caribou follow the same geographic pattern as levels found in sediments. Scientists consider that much of this mercury has been transported from human-made sources in other parts of the world. An exception is mercury in caribou from the Yukon, where local geology may be more important (Northern Contaminants Program, 2003).

Forest fires

The importance of trends in forest fires to caribou is related to winter forage, dominated by fruticose lichens which are most abundant in older successional forests. The effect of forest fires on caribou abundance has been controversial but most studies do document that caribou tend to avoid recently burned areas (Joly et al., 2003).

Climate change

Climate changes will affect the movements and distribution of the herd as well as the ability of hunters to get on the land to be able to continue their traditional hunting practices. Table 18 provides a general treatment of observed and potential climate impacts on caribou, their ranges, and the communities that depend on them. The table was developed for the Porcupine Caribou Herd and as such some of the impacts described (for example, changes to calving grounds on coastal plains) do not apply to all herds.

Table 18. Observed and potential impacts of climate change on migratory tundra caribou populations, based primarily on research conducted on the Porcupine Caribou Herd.
Climate change conditionImpact on habitatImpact on movementImpact on body conditionImpact on productivityManagement implications
Earlier snowmelt on coastal plain
  • Higher plant growth rate
  • Core calving grounds move further north
  • Less use of current calving grounds
  • Cows replenish protein reserves faster
  • Higher calf growth rate
  • Higher probability of pregnancy
  • Higher June calf survival
  • Need for flexibility in calving ground protection (adaptive management)
Warmer, drier summer
  • Earlier peak biomass
  • Plants harden earlier
  • Reduction in mosquito breeding sites
  • Increased parasitic (oestrid) fly harassment
  • Increased frequency of fires on winter range
  • Fewer “mushroom” years
  • Movement off of calving grounds earlier
  • More use of insect relief habitat in July
  • Avoidance of recently burned winter habitat
  • Increased harassment will lower fall body condition
  • Reduced probability of pregnancy
  • Protection of insect relief areas important
Warmer, wetter fall
  • More frequent icing conditions
  • Caribou abandon ranges with severe surface icing
  • Higher winter mortality
  • Earlier weaning
Warmer, wetter winters
  • Deeper denser snow
  • Icing conditions, especially in tundra and Arctic islands
  • Increased dependence on low snow regions
  • Stay on winter range longer
  • Greater over winter weight loss
  • Higher incidence of extended lactation
  • Lower over winter mortality on calves
  • Need to consider protection of low snow regions (adaptive management)
Warmer springs
  • More freeze/thaw cycles during spring migration
  • Faster spring melt
  • Movement slowed and/or movement unto drier windswept ridges
  • Accelerated weight loss in spring
  • Higher wolf predation on cows and calves due to use of windswept ridges
  • Concern over timing and location of spring migration in relation to traditional harvesting areas

Overall effect: In very general terms: the calving range improves but with movement and reliance on more northern portions of the calving range; animals leave calving range earlier; cows and calves suffer reduced summer and fall body reserves due to increase in oestrid fly harassment; mosquito harassment may be reduced if summers drier; more frequent icing in fall, winter, and spring ranges, which depend on the location of these ranges; may have moderate to severe implications to body condition and survival.

Source: Gunn et al. (2011c), update of Chapter 10 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2005) by the author (Russell)

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It is difficult to attribute a single event such as an icing storm as being within the “normal” range or as an indication of a warming climate. Examples of this type of event occurred in the fall of 2003, when coastal areas from Alaska to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, experienced icing conditions that forced caribou to move in search of accessible forage. Ice on the land formed a barrier between the caribou and their food (Nagy, 2007).

Another factor that adds to the complexity of predicting impacts of climate change is that all herds have evolved and adapted to a unique suite of environmental factors within their ranges --some herds cope with winter ranges characterized by deep, persistent snow, while others enjoy mild winter conditions; some herds occupy excellent summer ranges with an abundance of fresh green vegetation; others have to replenish fat and protein reserves depleted over winter with vegetation that is limited by a brief, intense summer growing season. Changes that result in more severe winter range conditions, for example, would have a different effect on different herds--even neighbouring herds. For example, under a warmer climate, the annual range for the Leaf River Herd may increase while that of the George River Herd may contract (Sharma et al., 2009).

Further, at the population level, some herds have exhibited a high rate of increase, over 15% annually, while others have increased at rates of less than 5% annually, primarily reflecting higher adult female mortality rates (Figure 77 ). Environmental changes that result in an increase in adult female mortality would have a greater impact on herds that demonstrate a low rate of increase.

Within the range of the Porcupine Herd, for example, the trends of climate change are marked. Spring, in particular, has warmed over the last three decades. During late spring, after calving, this has resulted in early snowmelt and more food available for nursing mothers. As a consequence, early calf survival has improved (Griffith et al., 2002). In early spring, however, when the herd is on migration, warmer weather has resulted in more freeze-thaw cycles as temperatures get above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Specifically, the number of days where the temperature has risen above zero during spring migration doubled during the population decrease phase (1989–2001) compared to the population increase phase (1975–1988) (Griffith et al., 2002). The greater difficulty in traveling and feeding through ice crusts would result in higher energetic costs, and moving onto wind-blown ridges during migration would result in potential increased mortality from wolves, as wolves are at an advantage in shallow snow (Griffith et al., 2002).

It is clear from this example that specific information on how changes in temperature and precipitation alter environmental conditions for caribou throughout during their annual cycle is needed to understand how each herd is adapted to its range and to be able to predict impacts of climate change on caribou abundance and distribution. Work is underway through the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network (CARMA) to produce datasets of relevant climate metrics at the scale of the herd ranges (Russell et al., 2013). Climate data and other data (such as measures of biomass) from satellite monitoring are used to develop daily median values of “caribou-relevant” climate variables for defined regions within the range of each herd, for each of five seasons (calving, summer, fall, winter, and spring). Variables, aside from temperature and precipitation, include: accumulated growing degree days above 0°C and above 5°C, leaf area index and vegetation greenness fraction; measures related to mosquito and oestrid (warble and bot fly) activity; snow depth, density, cover, and melt rate; and, accumulated number of days with freeze/thaw events.

Cumulative energy costs to caribou

Cumulative effects assessment (CEA) is part of environmental impact assessment (EIA) and focuses on the combined impact of the individual effects of industrial development projects. However, the context is also set by multiple stresses from all human activities additional to natural environmental effects at both the individual and population scales. To scale up the individual animal’s behavioural responses to the population requires being able to estimate the energy costs to the individual and whether those costs will affect its reproduction and survival. Estimating the costs of a behavioural response is not straightforward: as well as the energy costs of movement and interruption in foraging time, there may also be an effect on diet (energy protein intake) if a displacement puts the individual in a different habitat. Understanding and integrating the relationships between behaviour, habitat selection, energy, and protein intake relative to reproduction and survival is data intensive and requires interdisciplinary collaboration, as the understanding is based on ecology, nutritional ecology, and modeling. Russell (2012) describes modelling to integrate environmental influences to project caribou vulnerability to developments.

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Addressing climate change

A major human stressor for the Arctic Ecozone+ is climate change as demonstrated throughout this report. This stressor cannot be overcome through stewardship and conservation measures within the ecozone+, although measures can be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the ecozone+ and to adapt to coming changes. This is a global problem, and the most significant measure of actions taken to conserve Arctic ecosystems is the rate of reduction of releases of greenhouse gases worldwide. Globally, however, emissions continue to grow, though the pace of growth appears to be slowing (Environment Canada, 2013a).

Historical and projected trends in greenhouse gas emissions for Canada are graphed in Figure 101, showing that additional greenhouse gas reduction measures will be needed to achieve Canada’s 2020 target for emissions. The decrease in emissions around 2009 due to the global recession reflects a global trend for that time period and shows that actual emissions are closely tied to economic factors (Environment Canada, 2013a).

Figure 101. Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, 1990–2011, projected emissions with current mitigation measures, and Canada’s international commitment for reduction by 2020.

Projections with current measures include the compliance contribution of the Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sector for each year; actual emission trends are projected to be 28 Mt higher than the projections shown in 2020.

Source: Environment Canada (2013b; 2013c)
Long description for Figure 101

This line graph shows  the following information:

Canada's annual greenhouse gas emissions, 1990–2011, projected emissions with current mitigation measures, and Canada's international commitment for reduction by 2020.
YearTotal greenhouse gas emissions (megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent)

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Protected areas

The global scale of climate change does not mean that regional and local stewardship are not important in the Arctic. As plant and animal ranges shift and ecosystem function and processes are affected by climate change, it becomes even more important to focus on conservation of important lands and waters such as breeding areas for migratory birds and caribou, building into conservation plans the flexibility needed to adapt to the changing landscape. An important stewardship tool is the creation and management of protected areas. In addition, pressure is increasing in some areas and likely to increase further for development and expansion of human use of the sea, coastal zone, and land. Protected areas are an important management tool for conserving the ecosystems needed to support Arctic biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide. Arctic ecosystems operate on huge scales, often crossing the terrestrial/marine divide. No one protected area is sufficiently large to maintain the integrity of ecosystems and stewardship of the entire land base is crucial, taking into consideration ecosystem elements and processes that routinely move in and out of protected areas, such as migratory birds and caribou.

Analyses for this section were conducted for ESTR based on data provided by federal, territorial, and provincial jurisdictions and have not been updated (see figures for references). Location of protected areas is shown for all of Canada in Figure 102 and the growth of protected areas in the Arctic Ecozone+ is shown in Figure 103. In addition to federal parks and wildlife sanctuaries, the ecozone+ has (generally smaller) territorial and Quebec parks and reserves, often protecting cultural heritage sites and areas such as estuaries with particularly high value for biodiversity.

While the overall percentage of land protected is 11.3% for the ecozone+, this is not evenly distributed. The Arctic Archipelago has (as of May 2009) the highest proportion of protected area at 24.0% in 10 protected areas, followed by the Southern Arctic with 15.9% protected through 21 protected areas. The Northern Arctic has 6.7% of its land protected through 22 protected areas.

Much of the growth of protected areas in the Arctic has been related to the settlement of land claims. Many Arctic parks are managed through regimes created through land claim settlements, protecting the harvesting rights of Inuit within the parks, while working to conserve species and areas of special cultural and ecological significance.

Figure 102. Protected areas in the Arctic Ecozone+, 2009.

Note that smaller protected areas, such as the National Wildlife Areas described in the text box below, do not show up on this map due to the scale.

Source: Environment Canada (2009a) using data from the Conservation Areas Reporting and Tracking System (CARTS), v.2009.05, 2009 (CCEA, 2009); data provided by federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions
Long description for Figure 102

This map of the Arctic Ecozone+ shows the areas that were protected in 2009.  The map shows that the Arctic Archipelago has the highest proportion of protected area, at 24.0% in 10 protected areas, followed by the Southern Arctic with 15.9% protected through 21 protected areas. The Northern Arctic has 6.7% of its land protected through 22 protected areas.

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Figure 103. Growth of protected areas in the Arctic Ecozone+, 1927–2009.

Data provided by federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions, updated to May 2009. Only legally protected areas are included. All areas shown are protected as IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) categories I–III. IUCN categories are based on primary management objectives (see text for more information). Selected protected areas are shown on the figure, along with their dates of establishment.

Source: Source: Environment Canada (2009a) using data from the Conservation Areas Reporting and Tracking System (CARTS), v.2009.05, 2009 (CCEA, 2009); data provided by federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions
Long description for Figure 103

This bar graph shows the following information:

Growth of protected areas in the Arctic Ecozone+, 1927–2009. Cumulative Protected Area (km2)
YearNorthern ArcticSouthern ArcticArctic Cordillera
19597,02740, 9100
2005-2007101,676120,64262, 188
2008101,676122,57062, 188
2009103,562129,04062, 188

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National Wildlife Areas in Nunavut

National Wildlife Areas protect nationally significant habitat for migratory birds, support species or ecosystems at risk, or protect rare or unusual habitat. Critical natural features are conserved and activities considered harmful to species or habitats are prohibited. Three new National Wildlife Areas were created in Nunavut in June 2010 to protect critical habitat for Arctic seabirds, bowhead whales, and other species. They will be co-managed by local and federal governments, and were chosen based on advocacy and involvement from the communities of Qikiqtarjuak and Clyde River.

Akpait National Wildlife Area (774 km2) is an important area for migratory birds. It provides breeding habitat for one of Canada’s largest thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia) colonies, black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), glaucous gulls (Larus hyperboreus), and black guillemots. It is also home to polar bears, walruses, and several species of seals.

Qaqulluit National Wildlife Area (398 km2) is home to Canada’s largest colony of northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis), representing an estimated 22% of the total Canadian population. Marine animals, including walrus and ringed seals, also use the waters of this National Wildlife Area.

Ninginganiq National Wildlife Area (Isabella Bay) (336 km2) protects critical summer habitat for the Eastern Arctic population of bowhead whales, a Threatened species.

Source: Latour et al. (2008)

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Environmental governance

Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating since the close of the Cold War, “the North” is emerging as a new circumpolar geopolitical entity (Heininen and Nicol, 2007). Arctic countries and their indigenous peoples’ organizations are entering new discourses concerning the scale and nature of circumpolar regionalism and critical new environmental, human security, and economic development challenges. These northern discourses stress regional co-operation, human security, and sustainable development (Heininen and Nicol, 2007).

Several features set Arctic governance apart from the rest of Canada:

  • There is only one Aboriginal language group and culture (with important regional differences) across the entire region--a quarter of Canada--and its members remain numerically dominant.
  • The Inuit have forged alliances with related cultures/linguistic groups around the circumpolar region, for example, through the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an international non-government organization representing approximately 150,000 Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka in Russia.
  • The ICC and other Arctic indigenous organizations are Permanent Participants at the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization of the eight circumpolar countries that provides a forum for collaboration and oversight of many international initiatives related to ecological science and sustainable development.
  • Resource management boards established pursuant to the land claims settlements have become the dominant forces in management of land and natural resources. The networks of resource management boards, councils, and local hunters’ and trappers’ associations function as “bottom-up”, co-operative decision-making systems that are mandated to make use of science and Aboriginal traditional knowledge in their decision-making.

Wildlife in the Arctic Ecozone+ portion of the Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut is co-managed by governments and Inuvialuit pursuant to the Inuvialuit Final Agreement Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 1984) and by governments and Inuit pursuant to the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, 1993). While the terms of these agreements differ, in general they recognize the Aboriginal rights of Inuit and Inuvialuit to manage the harvest of wildlife, subject only to the need for conservation and public safety. The primary management bodies are two Wildlife Management Advisory Councils (WMAC) for the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon North Slope, and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB) for Nunavut. Although the mandates of these boards differ, both organizations bring together Inuit and government representatives.

In Nunavut, the Nunavut Department of Environment and Environment Canada (Canadian Wildlife Service) both appoint members to sit on the NWMB, along with Inuit appointed by their regional organizations. NWMB membership also includes other federal departments and Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated. However, as an institution of public government, all NWMB members represent the public interest and not necessarily the interests or opinions of their appointing bodies. These boards are supported by hunters’ and trappers’ associations from each community and other community committees.


A comprehensive review of how these new governance structures influence environmental status and trends, and knowledge thereof, is beyond the scope of this report. A case study will, however, serve as an example of evolving Arctic environmental governance.

Case study on environmental governance: Kitikmeot and the West Kitikmeot/Slave Study

In addition to the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, three regional Inuit associations were established under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement to manage Inuit-owned lands in the regions. The Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA) has a mandate “To represent the interests of Kitikmeot Inuit by protecting and promoting our social, cultural, political, environmental and economic well-being” (Kitikmeot Inuit Association, 2013). Under the KIA, the Kitikmeot Corporation and the Kitikmeot Economic Development Commission are delegated the responsibility of promoting economic development in the region. The KIA is responsible for administering surface lands in the Kitikmeot region. There is also a Kitikmeot Heritage Society that promotes Kitikmeot culture and history.

Even before its formal establishment, Kitikmeot communities were cooperating to organize the generation of information needed to inform environmental management decisions. For example, more than 20 years ago they completed a major study that quantified the country foods that they harvested from the land (Gunn et al., 1986).

The discovery of diamonds in 1991 at Lac de Gras initiated one of the largest mineral staking rushes in the history of the world (Environment and Natural Resources, 2012b). Out of concern about the impacts of rapid development on the environment, Kitikmeot communities formed a partnership with other Aboriginal (Dene) organizations, environmental organizations, government, and industry. The West Kitikmeot/Slave Study (WKSS) Society was founded in 1996 by nine partner organizations. The purpose of the Society was to collect environmental and socioeconomic information to enable better-informed planning and contribute to a baseline for assessing and mitigating cumulative effects of development (Environment and Natural Resources, 2012b). Community capacity and traditional knowledge were priorities.

The WKSS region encompassed the western part of Kitikmeot (Arctic Ecozone+, in Nunavut) plus the area between Great Slave Lake and Contwoyto Lake (Taiga Shield Ecozone+, in the NWT), with the treeline dividing the area approximately in half (Figure 104) (West Kitikmeot Slave Study Society, 2001). The calving, migrating, and wintering ranges of the Bathurst Caribou Herd were largely within the WKSS region. The Inuit communities of Kugluktuk, Bathurst Inlet, Umingmaktok, and Cambridge Bay, and the Dene communities of Gameti, Wha Ti, Rae Edzo, Wekweti, Yellowknife, Dettah, and Lutselk'e were included in the study area. The partners developed an initial five-year research program to provide information necessary to examine the long- and short-term effects of development in the WKSS area. The initial WKSS research program ended in 2001, but the society continued to fund projects until 2009, when it was dissolved (Environment and Natural Resources, 2012b).

The WKSS sponsored a number of wildlife-related studies, including studies of traditional ecological knowledge, specific habitats (such as the use of eskers by wildlife), place names as indicators of biogeographical knowledge, use of native plants for mine reclamation and revegetation, water quality, and ecology of important wildlife species, including caribou, moose, muskoxen, grizzly bears, wolves, and wolverines. Results of scientific studies were often presented at workshops attended by people from villages throughout the region so that results could be integrated with traditional ecological knowledge and priorities for action could be developed (Dumond et al., 2009). Conclusions were fed into the management process, to inform decisions, for example, on harvest quotas and on monitoring and research needs.

Collaborative programs and projects such as those undertaken through the WKSS can be effective because they provide a structure for making effective use of both scientific and traditional ecological knowledge (Gunn et al., 1988; Freeman, 1992; Stevenson, 1996; Zamparo, 1996; Berkes, 1998; Duerden and Kuhn, 1998; Usher, 2000). A side benefit is the promotion of mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual learning among local communities, regional management authorities, researchers, and other stakeholders, including industry.

Figure 104. West Kitikmeot/Slave Study area.
Source: West Kitikmeot Slave Study Society (2001)
Long description for Figure 104

This map shows the West Kitikmeot/Slave Study area region which encompass the western part of Kitikmeot (Arctic Ecozone+, in Nunavut) plus the area between Great Slave Lake and Contwoyto Lake (Taiga Shield Ecozone+, in the NWT), with the treeline dividing the area approximately in half.  The map shows the location of abundant mineral resources within the study area. These include 21 sites for gold, eight sites for diamonds, seven sites for base metals, and one site for rare earth elements. The map also shows five operating mines in the southern portion of the map.

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