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Climate: Increase in Arctic wildfires likely to have big impact on caribou herds

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Alaska caribou. Courtesy USGS.

Shifts in wildlife populations will affect Native American communities

Staff Report

FRISCO — Some big caribou herds in Alaska could lose more than 20 percent of their habitat as growing wildfires destroy critical foraging areas. Those changes will likely affect generations of Native American families whose existence is spiritually linked with the Arctic ungulates, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey reported in a new study.

Rapidly warming Arctic temperatures are to blame — global warming increases the flammability of lichen-producing boreal forests, which are important winter habitat for caribou herds.

“We project that the Porcupine caribou herd will lose 21 percent of winter habitat to fire by the end of this century, with the majority of this loss driven by increased flammability in spruce forests in the Yukon,” said Dr. Dave Gustine, a Research Wildlife Biologist with the USGS and lead author of the study.

The study examines how increasing temperatures will influence flammability of boreal forest areas used by the Central Arctic and Porcupine caribou herds during winter. Understanding possible changes to forest flammability allows forecasting of future winter distributions of caribou that will impact subsistence harvest and land, wildlife and fire management programs.

The potential changes in caribou distribution will affect communities that have a cultural and nutritional reliance on caribou. Arctic Village, Alaska and Old Crow Yukon Territory, are within the traditional boreal forest winter range of the Porcupine herd, while hunters from the Alaskan villages of Fort Yukon, Venetie and Chalkyitsik, travel north each year to harvest animals from this herd.

“Fires were less numerous and smaller in tundra habitats compared to spruce habitats and given the more likely climate trajectory, we projected that the Porcupine caribou herd, which winters primarily in the boreal forest, could be expected to experience a greater reduction in lichen-producing winter habitats than the Central Arctic herd that wintered primarily in the arctic tundra,” said Dr. Todd Brinkman a co-author of the study and member of the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The study is part of the USGS Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative.

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