November 11, 2006

Canada's elusive woodland caribou threatened by development

From The Toronto Star:

The woodland [caribou] -- which generally grow to no more than 200 kilograms for males, 115 for females, and lives a dozen or so years -- is thinly spread throughout the boreal forest, which stretches from Yukon to Newfoundland and Labrador, and it's under pressure everywhere.

Its main survival strategy, particularly for females in the calving season, is to disperse. The difficulty in locating these widely scattered animals keeps the main predator, wolves, in check.

But clear cuts and roads open territories to deer and moose, which attract wolves that then go after caribou in larger numbers.

The deeply imbedded desire for solitude means caribou simply don't like disturbance of any kind. Create a clear cut, for example, and they'll shy away at least 10 kilometres.

Each female occupies a home range that's about 6 1/2 times the size of Toronto, Schaeffer says. Individuals' territories overlap, so a herd of 500 requires 21 "Torontos," or about 13,000 square kilometres.

Because their lichens take 50 to 150 years to establish, caribou can only live in forests at least half a century old. The dependence on large, mature forests is what puts them at risk.

About 125 years ago in Ontario, caribou ranged as far south as Georgian Bay and the Ottawa Valley. Over the years, the boundary of their range has retreated northward — at about 34 kilometres each decade — as highways, settlements, logging, mines, hydro corridors and other intrusions destroyed much of the forest and chopped what remained into small bits. Now, with 60 per cent of their original base gone, they're found only north of Lake Superior. ...

The province is also considering a $4 billion plan for a hydro corridor across the top of the province that would carry what its proponents call green power — from hydroelectric projects in Manitoba and, possibly, Northern Ontario, and from wind turbines that could be built along the breezy west coast of Hudson Bay.

The line of towers and high-voltage wires is viewed as a potential alternative to nuclear generating stations. Native leaders say it might create jobs and provide cleaner, more reliable power than their communities now get from diesel generators.

Environmentalists, though, suggest the benefits are being oversold and technical problems downplayed.

On top of that, all the projects would also bring permanent roads into the far north, further fragmenting the wilderness.

[Bill Thornton, assistant deputy for forestry in the Ministry of Natural Resources,] suggests the animals' demise might be inevitable.

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