FEATURE-Climate change threatens future of Canada's northern hunters

by Chris Arsenault | @chrisarsenaul | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 12 October 2015 05:00 GMT

Indigenous hunter Deneze Antoine shows off the moose he recently killed in the garage of his father’s home in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, Canada. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Chris Arsenault

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In parts of the Northwest Territories, average annual temperatures have risen more than 3 degrees Celsius in past two decades

FORT SIMPSON, Northwest Territories, Canada, Oct 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indigenous hunter Jim Antoine has watched the decline of caribou herds with alarm, convinced that global warming is at least partially responsible for the crisis in Canada's far north.

An important food source for the Dene people, an indigenous group living in the northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada, as well as for other northern communities, the caribou population has crashed in recent years.

Scientists, hunters and government officials say there are several possible causes for the fall in numbers of the woodland caribou but climate change is likely a significant driver.

In parts of the Northwest Territories, average annual temperatures have already risen more than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4°F) in the past two decades, a local politician said, impacting everything from housing, transport to caribou numbers.

This comes amid fears the world may fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet a target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times - the focus of a major U.N. conference in Paris in December where 193 countries are due to seal a new deal to slow climate change.

"We live with (climate change) everyday," Antoine told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his suburban home in Fort Simpson, a mostly Dene community of about 1,200 residents just over 500 km (310 miles) south of the Arctic Circle.

"In the old days, it stayed cold for a longer time and there was more water on the land ... all of that will impact the animals," said Antoine, who was the premier of the Northwest Territories in the late 1990s, munching on sauteed moose meat.

The caribou crisis is one manifestation of climate change facing residents in a region considered the "canary in the coal mine" by environmentalists, as global warming is felt here first and often with more intensity than other areas.

The Arctic ecosystems, Greenland ice sheet and tropical coral reefs are systems earmarked as particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures.

Scientists fear greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the global average, according to a Cambridge University study in September.

CRISES SEEN MOVING SOUTH

Wildlife are particularly affected by the changes. The number of breeding females in one major caribou herd, a key population indicator, dropped by half between 2015 and 2012, the territorial government said in late September.

In 1986, the herd was about 470,000 strong. Now it's 16,000.

As warming continues across the once frozen north, residents worry the situation will get worse.

The Cambridge study warned of a possible $43 trillion hit to economic damage by the end of the century as rising temperatures melt permafrost and long-buried carbon dioxide and methane seep from the ground, creating a catastrophic feedback loop.

With hunted meat drying above the stove, a roaring wood fire keeping the place warm, and massive hunting dogs roaming around, Joseph Antoine, a relative of Jim's with decades of experience on the land, worries about the future.

"This decline of the caribou is not going to stop," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Certain areas had a huge amount of caribou at one time."

While indigenous hunters are feeling the affects of climate change first, the problems they have faced over the past two decades with increasing ferocity will invariably impact larger populations further south, scientists said.

Earlier melts and later freezing of winter ice could also be to blame for smaller caribou populations, disrupting migration routes to breeding grounds or winter food sources.

The crash in the caribou population is not unique to Canada with similar declines happening across the north, said Nancy Maynard, an Emeritus Scientist with NASA.

The numbers of reindeer - a cousin of the caribou - in Norway and Russia's eastern regions are declining rapidly, she said, citing ice melts, increased forest fires linked to warming, and industrial development as possible causes.

"The changes are happening so fast and it's dramatic how people are forced to cope," Maynard said. "The rate of change has accelerated and it has been surprising scientists."

HEALTHY EATING AT RISK

In northern villages like Fort Simpson, caribou hunting isn't just a cultural practice honed over generations, or a marker of indigenous identity, but a key food source in a region where groceries normally cost more than double southern prices.

The decline in the caribou population is exacerbated by high costs of trucking or flying food in the Northwest Territories, an area larger than Egypt but with less than 50,000 people.

"People are nutritionally affected by the caribou (decline)," politician Bob Bromley told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the territorial capital, Yellowknife.

"They have been raised on caribou and their bodies are adjusted to deal with that kind of food. Store-bought food is not as healthy and usually has higher fat and sugar content than they are used to."

With a growing reliance on shop food, obesity is rising, physical activity declining and lifestyle-related ailments like diabetes and cancer increasing among indigenous people particularly, the government said in a 2014 report.

Across northern Canada, the number of people depending on food aid more than doubled between 2013 and 2008, according to a report from Food Banks Canada.

It said more than 3,500 people in Canada's three northern regions - the Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories - now depend on food assistance in a "dire public health emergency".

The shift in the climate has also made hunting less safe as the ice in some regions isn't freezing as deeply and melts earlier, said Jamal Shirley, a manager at the Nunavut Research Institute in Canada's northernmost territory.

Many residents hunt on snowmobiles and rely on traditional knowledge of ice thickness to navigate frozen lakes but a number of younger people, without the traditional knowledge of ice, have died in recent years by falling through when fishing.

"With all of these factors occurring at the same time as climate change, it's hard to look at the challenges in isolation," Shirley told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Ultimately, nature is in control here and human beings are vulnerable."

But few have faith that their situation will improve following the climate talks in December this year.

"The countries doing the polluting aren't going to stop," said Jim Antoine. "We aren't the ones causing climate change but we are the ones living with it."

(Reporting By Chris Arsenault, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

Travel financing for this reporting was provided by the Earth Journalism Network.

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