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Technical Thematic Report No. 10. - Northern caribou population trends in Canada

Trends in protected caribou habitats

One of the most frequently raised concerns about caribou is the need to protect calving caribou from human activities when they aggregate on their traditional calving grounds (for example BQCMB, 2004).Currently, no Canadian herd has a fully protected calving ground, although some are partly protected. The Bluenose-West Herd's calving ground is largely within Tuktut Nogait National Park, established in 1996 to protect this calving ground (Government of Canada et al. 1996). In northwest Yukon, the Canadian portion of the Porcupine Herd calving ground is within Ivvavik National Park, which was established in 1984 (Parks Canada, 2007).

Some calving grounds have specific restrictions on land-use activities aimed at providing some measure of protection to calving caribou. The federal Caribou Protection Measures for the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq calving grounds have been in effect since 1978; comparable land-use regulation has not been applied to other calving grounds in the territories (Gunn et al. 2007). Quebec has regulations restricting land-use activities on calving grounds, legally identified as a land used by more than five adult females per km2 from the 15th of May to the 1st of July, based on telemetric locations between 1999 and 2003 (Brodeur, 2011, pers. comm.). However, for the George River Herd, by 2010, calving had shifted to outside the area covered by these regulations (Taillon, 2011, pers. comm.).

Although the trend for most herds is geographic fidelity to calving grounds, the timescale for fidelity varies. Variation among herds is likely, given the differences in trends in abundance among herds (Gunn et al. In Press). The calving grounds of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds, for example, show geographic fidelity – calving ground locations did not show consistent shifts from the 1960s to the 1990s, although the degree of overlap of the two herds on calving grounds varied between consecutive years (Gunn et al. 2007). Subsequently, the fidelity for the traditional calving ground of the Beverly Herd changed, with some cows switching (Gunn et al. In Press; Nagy et al. 2011). Since 1966, when the calving distribution started to be mapped during aerial surveys, the Bathurst Herd has had two periods, totalling 30 years, during which the predictability of the calving ground's location was high. The two periods were separated by an 11-year period (1986 to 1996) during which calving locations shifted from the east to the west of Bathurst Inlet, where calving was also recorded in the 1950s (Gunn et al. 2008).

Beverly caribou, during pre-calving, calving, and post-calving, spend a large part of their annual cycle feeding and traveling on lands protected within the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary (BQCMB, 2004). The Ahiak Herd's calving grounds, post-calving ranges, and much of the summer range are within the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary and are therefore protected from resource exploration or development (Gunn et al. 2000b). The Sanctuary was designated for the large numbers of nesting lesser snow geese and Ross's geese (Bird Studies Canada and Nature Canada, No Date). The implications of the increasing numbers of snow geese on caribou foraging or disease transmission are unknown.

On the annual ranges of the Porcupine Herd, sensitive areas in Ivvavik National Park and Vuntut National Park are protected from resource development but not from human activity, such as tourism and aircraft over-flights. (Parks Canada, 2007; Parks Canada, 2010b). The calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and some parts of the fall and winter range in the Richardson Mountains have no permanent protection. The area of the Northern Richardson Mountains within the Gwich'in Settlement Area is protected under the Gwich'in Land Use Plan (Gwich'in Land Use Planning Board, 2003). Another area of the Northern Richardson Mountains is in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region – the sensitivity of this region is addressed in the Aklavik Community Conservation Plan (Community of Aklavik et al. 2008). Other areas within the range of the Porcupine Herd have land use or management plans in place, including the Fishing Branch Protected Area, Tombstone Territorial Park, and Herschel Island Territorial Park (Environment Yukon, 2010a).

Protection of caribou seasonal ranges is increasing in the Northwest Territories through the efforts of the Northwest Territories Protected Areas Strategy (Northwest Territories Protected Areas Strategy Advisory Committee, 1999). Three areas around Great Bear Lake will protect summer, fall, and winter ranges for Bluenose-East Herd and the establishment of Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve will provide protection for part of the winter ranges for the Bathurst, Ahiak, and Beverly herds (Gunn et al. 2011b).

Protection of Peary caribou habitat is increasing, as two national parks in areas important for Peary caribou have been established since the early 1990s, and a third park is under negotiation. On northern Banks Island, Aulavik National Park was established in 1992, protecting land that is mostly summer range for Peary caribou (Parks Canada, 2010a). On the northeastern range of Peary caribou, Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island, the second largest national park in Canada, was established in 2001 (Parks Canada, 2006). The third park initiative potentially providing protection for Peary caribou is on northern Bathurst Island – land for the proposed National Park was set aside for the park in 2010.

There is no clear trend toward increasing protection for migratory caribou calving grounds across Canada (Festa-Bianchet et al. 2011). Although the trend is toward greater protection of annual ranges for some herds through a variety of regimes, movement towards herd-specific land-use planning to ensure the linking of the protected areas is essential for the integrity of caribou seasonal ranges. Globally, concerns are rising for the protection of migratory species (Berger, 2004).