ON THE PORCUPINE RIVER TUNDRA, Yukon Territory (AP) — Here on the endlessly rolling and tussocky terrain of northwest Canada, where man has hunted caribou since the Stone Age, the vast antlered herds are fast growing thin. And it’s not just here.
Across the tundra 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the east, Canada’s Beverly herd, numbering more than 200,000 a decade ago, can barely be found today.
Halfway around the world in Siberia, the biggest aggregation of these migratory animals, of the dun-colored herds whose sweep across the Arctic’s white canvas is one of nature’s matchless wonders, has shrunk by hundreds of thousands in a few short years.
From wildlife spectacle to wildlife mystery, the decline of the caribou — called reindeer in the Eurasian Arctic — has biologists searching for clues, and finding them.
They believe the insidious impact of climate change, its tipping of natural balances and disruption of feeding habits, is decimating a species that has long numbered in the millions and supported human life in Earth’s most inhuman climate.
Many herds have lost more than half their number from the maximums of recent decades, a global survey finds. They "hover on the precipice of a major decline," it says.
The "People of the Caribou," the native Gwich’in of the Yukon and Alaska, were among the first to sense trouble, in the late 1990s, as their Porcupine herd dwindled. From 178,000 in 1989, the herd — named for the river crossing its range — is now estimated to number 100,000.
"They used to come through by the hundreds," James Firth, 56, of the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board said as he guided two Associated Press journalists across the tundra.
Off toward distant horizons this summer afternoon, only small groups of a dozen or fewer migrating caribou could be seen grazing southward across the spongy landscape, green with a layer of grasses, mosses and lichen over the Arctic permafrost.
"I’ve never seen it like this before," Firth said of the sparse numbers....
Drawing on scores of other studies, government databases, wildlife management boards and other sources, the biologists found that 34 of 43 herds being monitored worldwide are in decline. The average falloff in numbers was 57 percent from earlier maximums, they said.
Siberia’s Taimyr herd has declined from 1 million in 2000 to an estimated 750,000, as reported in the 2008 "Arctic Report Card" of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Taimyr is the world’s largest herd, but Canada and Alaska have more caribou, and the Alberta study reported that 22 of 34 North American herds are shrinking. Data were insufficient to make a judgment on seven others....
In neighboring Northwest Territories, the territorial government on Sept. 24 reported results of its aerial survey of the Bathurst herd: Its population has dropped to about 32,000, from 128,000 in 2006....
"The numbers are not getting better. There’s no good news, no indication of recovery," J. Michael Miltenberger, the environment and natural resources minister, said by telephone from Yellowknife, the capital.
He said "there’s a huge issue" with the Beverly herd, which numbered 276,000 in 1994, ranging over the Canadian tundra 1,500 kilometers (1,000 miles) due north of North Dakota.
"We’ve been flying north to south, east to west," Miltenberger said. "By our count, with the Beverly herd, they’ve all but disappeared."
Climate change is piling problem upon problem on the caribou, he said, including bogging them down in thawing permafrost and lengthening the wildfire season, burning up their food.
"The cumulative impact is bringing enormous pressure on the caribou," he said....