Why is it that reporters with a good story to tell sometimes can’t seem to avoid the pit of embellishment that makes journalism look so bad?
“Though that news barely registered with the American public, it was powerful: the imminent disappearance of a large mammal species from the Lower 48. And the Selkirk caribou are only the tip of the melting iceberg. Across a broad swath of Canada and Alaska, caribou populations have been plummeting for decades. The main cause: industrial development in their habitat.”
Caribou populations are declining in parts of Canada and Alaska. They are also rising in other parts of Alaska. Earlier this year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the western Arctic caribou herd, the state’s largest, had increased to 259,000 caribou from 201,000 the year before.
“Caribou, a type of deer, live across a massive slice of the planet’s north, from the Arctic tundra south through the boreal, or northern, forest. They reproduce slowly: Females are pregnant for nearly eight months and give birth to just one baby at a time,” Rosner wrote.
Caribou are a herd animal. They reproduce slowly if there are few productive cows in the herd. They reproduce rapidly if there are a significant number of highly productive cows, as happens to be the case with the western Arctic herd at the moment.
The herd underwent a decline earlier this decade because it was composed of a lot of old cows, many of which have now died, and because calf survival was poor due to predation, which has also declined.
“With fewer productive cows exiting the population and an increased number of calves joining the herd things were bound to improve,” state wildlife biologist Alex Hansen said in a January statement that pointed out that “Alaska’s caribou herds frequently experience cyclic highs and lows influenced by natural factors including range condition, weather, disease, and predation.”
This has been going on for ages. The few Alaska herds in decline now are by no means an indication the numbers in general are “plummeting” in the 49th state. Not to mention there is little in the way of “industrial development” within the Alaska caribou range.
A simple Google search and a map should have made the latter obvious to Rosner. Just as a simple Google search would reveal the fact that the various subspecies of caribou – primarily woodland and barren-ground animals – should not be confused.
A caribou is not a caribou
The woodland caribou is a subspecies in trouble throughout most of its range. The status of the various subspecies of barren ground caribou is a wholly different story involving in what is in some ways a wholly different animal.
The barren-ground caribou are animals of the tundra. The woodland caribou are animals of the mountains.
The woodland species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “inhabit high elevation, forested areas with deep snowfall and steep, mountainous terrain. During the winter, they feed solely on lichen
growing from certain forest trees. The deep snowpack lifts caribou up
to five meters into the canopy of the spruce-fir and cedar-hemlock forests to reach this lichen. All other caribou feed primarily by ‘cratering’ or pawing at lichens buried in shallow snow at lower elevations.”
Because Alaska lacks for spruce-fir and cedar-hemlock forests, it is home to few woodland caribou. But because the state has massive expanses of tundra, it is home to a lot of barren-ground caribou – an estimated 750,000 at the moment.
Where those animals have declined and remained low, the issue is not with “industrial development” but with natural predation.
The textbook case is the Mentasta caribou herd which calves in the nearly 20.6-million-square-mile Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, a conservation unit the size of West Virginia and six-times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
The Mentasta herd numbered near 3,200 by 1987 when a decline started, Gretchen Roffler and colleagues noted in a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 2012.
As the nearby Nelchina herd – a road accessible band of caribou that is the most viewed and hunted in the state – increased, “the Mentasta herd began a steady decline to approximately 600 by 1999, largely as a result of substantial predation of young calves during 1990–1999,” she wrote.
When she and her colleagues studied the herd in early 2000s, the number of caribou was still low and it has remained that way. Industrial development is not a threat to their long-term survival. Death at the claws and fangs of wild predators is the threat.
“The Nelchina herd was recognized as a large, migratory herd with annual movements between the seasonal ranges of approximately 600 kilometers (about 375 miles),” the scientists wrote . “They calved at high densities on a common calving area, swamping local predators to maintain relatively high survival of calves to fall. The Mentasta herd, on the other hand, was much smaller in number, calved at low densities, and suffered considerable early mortality of calves due to predation….”
The Mentasta caribou, as one biologist once put it, made bad life choices. Instead of massing on calving grounds away from predators, Mentasta females calve in the midst of a lot of wolves and bears and thus a lot of their young die as food for those predators.
The story is much the same for the Denali caribou herd, which only rarely ventures outside the nearly 9.5-million-square-mile Denali National Park and Preserve, an area about the size of Vermont.
Denali is Alaska’s most popular park. The number of annual visitors is now near 650,000 per year, an increase of nearly 280,000 people since the Denali caribou herd crashed in 2000.
People versus caribou?
Some in Alaska dislike Denali’s industrial tourism. The development outside the park entrance is referred as “Glitter Gulch,” not necessarily affectionately, and bus loads of tourists roll up the Denali Park Road in waves every summer day.
But the Denali caribou numbers aren’t tied to this industrial tourism. In fact, tourism in the park was generally falling as the herd declined, according to park service numbers.
Tourism started creeping upward in the mid-2000s, and so did caribou numbers.
But it’s all irrelevant because the events aren’t related. Winter weather and predation, not people, are the well documented factors affecting the Denali caribou population, according to the data from the park’s now decades long study.
Caribou population numbers are naturally controlled by two things: The number of old animals dying, and the number of young animals surviving to replace them.
Severe winters, something to which Alaska is prone, can make life tough and deadly for both young and old. But the young have a particularly tough time in the natural world in which caribou live.
“In their first 15 days of life, caribou calves are very vulnerable to predation and, on average, over half the calves die during this period,” the Park Service’s Denali study notes. “Bears and wolves account for more than 80 percent of calf deaths. Another 10 percent of the deaths are caused by golden eagles, wolverines, and coyotes.”
News or propaganda?
Rosner notes similar predation problems facing woodland caribou, but then clearly doesn’t understand them or simply spins them.
Roads in Canada, she writes, “provided the wolves year-round access to tasty caribou flesh. Research suggests that wolves can travel up to three times faster along roads and trails than they can in unbroken forest.
“Opening up the forest also brings in more of the animals wolves crave—deer, elk, moose. With more to eat, the wolves can proliferate, increasing the pressure on caribou. And because the wolves have so many species to feast on, their populations remain large even as caribou numbers shrink.”
These things are all true. Habitat changes, whether natural or manmade, affect all wildlife species. Logging of big, high-mountain timber which supports the lichens on which woodland caribou depend is a problem for the woodland caribou in the U.S. and Canadian West, where the animals are near extinction.
Habitat loss, road kills – somewhat ironically given the small population numbers of these caribou – and predation are driving the decline, Lynne Warren wrote in a story for the National Wildlife Federation magazine last year.
“…(But) it’s the surge in predator attacks since 2009 that has chiefly driven the herd’s decline, a change directly related to human activity,” he wrote. “In recent decades, resource extraction has destroyed broad swathes of the ancient forests on which the caribou depend.
“As shrubs and young trees sprout in cleared areas, they attract deer, moose and elk, the favored prey of mountain lions and wolves, which have arrived in force. Joe Scott, director of international programs for Conservation Northwest—a National Wildlife Federation affiliate based in Washington State that ardently supports caribou conservation – calls Selkirk wolves powerful. ‘They’re 110-pound moose hunters,’ he says, that routinely take down animals twice the size of mountain caribou.
“Caribou have little defense against this predator invasion. They forage in small groups widely scattered across dense forests and high-altitude meadows. This pattern long made hunting them so difficult that few predators bothered. But roads and clear-cuts created by logging, mining, pipeline construction and oil and gas extraction, along with trails that recreation companies create for snowmobilers and skiers, now provide both wolves and mountain lions with easy paths to a virtual mountain caribou buffet – and the consequences have been devastating.”
The only pertinent fact Warren left out of his story is the shift in human attitudes over the last 30 years. Large predators – wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears – were once badly persecuted across the West.
As a result of hunting, trapping and poisoning, their population numbers were dangerously depressed. Wolves and grizzlies were driven onto the endangered species list.
Attitudes toward these animals changed as they began to disappear. The endangered listing provided them protection and inspired recovery efforts. Predators numbers are now recovering to nearer natural levels.
Woodland caribou are to some extent paying the price.
Ecologically, interactions between predator and prey in environments involving multiple predators and multiple prey get complicated. The biologists working in Denali Park in the 2000s discovered that the state of Alaska’s careful management of salmon to boost returns to more than 100 million fish per year for decades now has helped increase wolf numbers in the park.
As a result, more caribou, moose and Dall sheep die.
“Increased abundance of subsidized consumers generally results in increased predation pressure on local prey resources,” the scientists noted in a peer-review study published by the Ecological Society of America, and in this case “estimated predation rates on ungulates in the northwestern ﬂats (where salmon were available) were approximately three times higher than those in the remainder of our study area (19 percent versus 6 percent, respectively).”
The world is an interconnected place. Everything humans do – even the seemingly most benign things – affect the planet in some way. It’s complicated.
The only thing simple is that when predators cease to kill prey – no matter whether the predators are other animals or humans – the prey prosper. See white-tailed deer, a cousin of the caribou. Many urban areas of the U.S. are now overrun with deer because urban environments lack for the deers’ natural predators and are closed to hunting.
There are so many deer in heavily developed New Jersey that the Department of Agriculture and the National Audubon Society warn that the animals are destroying their own habitat.
Some areas have “a density as high as 114 deer per square mile,” they say. “At this density, white-tailed deer negatively impact forest health, ecosystem balance, human activity, and the health of local deer populations.”
More than 100 whitetails per square mile is a staggering number. It would equate to about 30 caribou, a larger bodied animal, per square mile. The western arctic herd roams an area of about 140,000 square miles and peaked at about 409,000 caribou (about 3 caribou per square mile) in 2003.
When a decline began shortly thereafter, state biologists worried about the herd overusing its range suggested a downward trend was a good thing.
Arctic Alaska happens to be one of the few parts of the state that has seen development on the scale that would be considered “industrial.” The North Slope of the Arctic is home to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.
After decades of study, state wildlife biologists are still trying to sort out whether Prudhoe Bay developments have helped caribou – as was the case for development and their white-tailed cousins in the lower 48 – or hurt caribou – as has been the case for woodland caribou in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho.
Since oil development began at Prudhoe, the caribou population of the central arctic herd has gone from 5,000 to 70,000 and now back down to 22,000. Biologists admit they’re not sure why.
At this point, the scientific data is such at that the Slope’s industrial development can be neither credited for the caribou increase nor blamed for the caribou decline, though oil industry supporters and environmentalists can find tidbits of information in the data that make it possible to argue for either point of view.
Journalists aren’t supposed to be on the side of either interest when covering stories like this. Journalists are, or once were, expected to provide an at least somewhat objective view of big, complicated pictures.
It’s sad when they don’t. Rosner is no Claas Relotius – the German reporter who got a lot of attention for being fired after fabricating a story about Fergus Falls, Minn. to portray it as an example of an American Heartland community obsessed with support of President Donald Trump – but Rosner’s reporting is indicative of the lack of simple fact-checking that has crept into so much American journalism these days.
And the biggest loser, sad to say, is journalism – a business the view of which just keeps “plummetting” in the eyes of the American public.