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Yuletide Warning: Rudolph Losing Ground to Climate Change

Imagine Christmas without reindeer.

We might someday have to do just that, Cornell University conservation scientist Jeff Wells warns.

Wells, a visiting fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is warning that the beloved animals of Christmas folklore are in severe decline thanks to global warming and industrial development in their boreal forest homes.

Wells is a science advisor for Pew Environment Group's International Boreal Conservation Campaign and formerly the Audubon Society's national conservation director. Now a senior scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative, Wells warns that the numbers of caribou, as reindeer are known in North America, will continue to drop unless this key habitat is protected.

Circling the northern latitudes of the Earth, caribou thrive in cold climates. They are tough, adaptable creatures that can survive in winter by eating only lichens. But when the health of their habitats are threatened, Wells said, so too is the health of the herd.

While some caribou live in large migratory groups, many remain year-round within the Canadian boreal, the world's largest remaining intact forest. Wells said in Ontario the species range has retracted at a rate of two miles a year, resulting in the loss of half of the province's woodland caribou range. Sixty percent has been lost in Alberta, and 40 percent in British Columbia.

More recently, massive declines in the numbers of the barren-ground, long-distance migratory caribou have been recorded; with some herds dropping as much as 90 percent. One herd, for example, went from an estimated 472,000 in 1986 to 128,000 by 2006.

Wells attributes much of this to industrial development, especially in the woodland caribou, which are known to be highly sensitive to habitat changes. Add the fact that so many barren-ground herds across the globe are at such low numbers at the same time makes Wells concerned that the twin threats of global warming and industrial activities have had a major negative impact on herd survival.

Protecting caribou habitats would also help combat climate change, Wells says, noting that his research, published in the report, “The Carbon the World Forgot” and in the July/August 2010 edition of Forestry Chronicle finds that the Canadian boreal stores more than 208 billion tons of carbon – 26 years worth of global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

In addition to the ecological crisis, Wells notes that the disappearance of the caribou would be a cultural catastrophe for many indigenous populations.

"It would be the loss of their identity and a severing of a vital link to their ancestral past," Wells said.

John Carberry | Newswise Science News
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