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Modelling threats to caribou in Ontario’s Ring of Fire

Originally published in Canadian Geographic

26 October 2021

As interest in Ontario’s mineral-rich Ring of Fire region grows, caribou face threats on multiple fronts. New research could help chart a path to their conservation.

For caribou in the far north region of Ontario, there are storm clouds gathering. A recent analysis published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, which I helped to coauthor, projected possible population declines of anywhere from 17 to 30 per cent for northern caribou over the next 50 years.

There are two major factors behind this decline: climate change and expanding resource development, including a race to develop the mineral-rich Ring of Fire area in the Hudson Bay lowlands. These factors will combine to make life a lot more difficult for caribou in multiple ways.

But it is in understanding the multiple ways that caribou will struggle with the combined impacts of climate-driven landscape changes and human development that things get tricky. Things in nature are deeply intertwined — changes in one species can cascade to another. For example, in the computer modelling work in the paper, researchers had to look just as much at the impacts of a changing climate on moose as on caribou. That’s because we know that in areas with a higher percentage of younger regrowing forest, moose are more plentiful. As a result, wolf populations also tend to increase, and these higher wolf populations also take a bite out of caribou herds. The model suggested this could happen particularly along the southern band of the far north region, where warmer temperatures and increased fire will affect forest regrowth and age.

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