Undermining subsistence: Barren-ground caribou in a “tragedy of open access”

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Science Advances  28 Feb 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 2, e1701611
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701611

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Sustaining arctic/subarctic ecosystems and the livelihoods of northern Indigenous peoples is an immense challenge amid increasing resource development. The paper describes a “tragedy of open access” occurring in Canada’s north as governments open up new areas of sensitive barren-ground caribou habitat to mineral resource development. Once numbering in the millions, barren-ground caribou populations (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus/Rangifer tarandus granti) have declined over 70% in northern Canada over the last two decades in a cycle well understood by northern Indigenous peoples and scientists. However, as some herds reach critically low population levels, the impacts of human disturbance have become a major focus of debate in the north and elsewhere. A growing body of science and traditional knowledge research points to the adverse impacts of resource development; however, management efforts have been almost exclusively focused on controlling the subsistence harvest of northern Indigenous peoples. These efforts to control Indigenous harvesting parallel management practices during previous periods of caribou population decline (for example, 1950s) during which time governments also lacked evidence and appeared motivated by other values and interests in northern lands and resources. As mineral resource development advances in northern Canada and elsewhere, addressing this “science-policy gap” problem is critical to the sustainability of both caribou and people.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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