Endangered by Climate Change, Arctic Caribou One Step Closer to Protection

The Peary caribou population has plummeted by 84% over the past 40 years.

Everyone knows by now that climate change is going to be the leading driver of species decline and extinction in the next century.  But that hasn’t stopped debate over climate change’s effects (are we only going to lose a few coastal properties, or are we going to lose Florida?), or about whether climate change is exacerbated by humanity’s love of all things that emit greenhouse gases.

But for those of us who are confident that nearly all the world’s climatologists are telling us the truth about our changing world, climate change is a great concern.  And there may be no place in the world, outside those small island nations threatened with sinking under rapidly rising seas, more threatened by climate change than the Arctic.

The plight of the polar bear, the first Arctic species to come to the public’s attention as threatened by climate change, has made regular headline news since before the species was listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2008.  Now, other Arctic species are increasingly recognized as being threatened.  The walrus, narwhal, Arctic fox, and the northernmost subspecies of caribou – the Peary and Dolphin Union caribou, are all suffering from a rapidly and dramatically changed climate that affects their ability to survive in a harsh habitat.

The Peary caribou, in particular, have suffered terrible declines over the past four decades as its population has plummeted by 84%.  As the world’s climate has warmed, the soft winter snow that historically fell over the caribou’s habitat has become freezing rain, encasing the species’ food-sources in an impenetrable layer of ice, and causing mass die-offs due to starvation.

In light of this threat and others, the International Fund for Animal Welfare filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking it to list the species as endangered.  The listing would increase awareness of the species’ plight, prohibit the import of any Peary caribou products into the United States, and shine a bright light on Canada’s sometimes ineffectual system of protecting its native species from extinction.

Today, the Fish and Wildlife Service said that a listing may indeed be warranted and that it would review the matter further.  This finding is a first victory for IFAW in its attempt to protect the species. Unfortunately, this procedural victory doesn’t yet provide real protection for the species. But in a time where the U.S. government agency tasked with enforcing wildlife protection laws is faced with an increasing workload and decreasing budget, we can take heart that, in this case, the U.S. is fulfilling its obligations and working towards protection of a species threatened with extinction by the effects of climate change.

The U.S. Government’s next statutory deadline falls on May 14th of this year, when it must decide whether a listing is warranted or not.  IFAW will continue to work with the government to ensure that they have all the information necessary to make the right decision.

-- NH

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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