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Sharing caribou: 3 ways a Caribou supporter captured his time with Barren Ground Caribou

When one of our caribou supporters, Christopher O’Brien, called me last Friday afternoon, his concern about the state of barren ground caribou immediately resonated.
“I notice you talk a lot about boreal woodland caribou,” he said, “but the barren ground caribou are also facing serious threats. Their numbers are diminishing.”

He’s right of course. There have been many reports recently of these migratory caribou becoming scarce in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Just two weeks ago, a recent survey found the Baffin caribou at their lowest numbers ever. Meanwhile, the NWT government reports that the Bathurst herd went from 350,000 in the mid 90s to 35,000 in 2012. Fluctuations in herd sizes have been observed before, but the low numbers and the increasing pressure from climate change, and from industrial activities like mining and roads, may make a recovery that much more difficult. 

“I would hate for the caribou to disappear,” said Chris. And that’s when he told me about his experience of being surrounded by the Bathurst barren ground caribou in 1993, during a summer trip near Point Lake, NWT. 

As someone who would love to spend more time in the field with these amazing creatures, I was all ears.

“How did you get the opportunity to see them?” I ask.

He had been looking for any signs of the Eskimo Curlew, a bird that in 2013 was declared extinct after 50 years with no sightings.

“When we first arrived in late May, we saw a few caribou around the campsite.” He goes on to describe his first sight of caribou getting chased by wolves across the landscape. “They were heading north though, so that was our last sighting for a while.” 

In early August, however, things changed. “Suddenly we came across a large group – maybe 50 caribou – bedding down. For the rest of the summer they were all around us.”

“There is nothing like the experience of having hundreds of them flowing all around you,” he adds. “Everyone should have that opportunity.”
Though he bemoans the quality of his video equipment at the time, Christopher is willing to share his video footage with me and our CPAWS supporters.

Making it to the North

When I asked Christopher where he developed his love for the land and whether he was a biologist by training, his answer lifted my heart.

“I’m not a biologist. In the 1970’s I decided that getting into the wilderness was important to me.”

Leaving most of his old life behind, Chris got a job doing a fisheries baseline study at a mine on Baffin Island. Other than training in the Navy reserves, nothing really prepared him for the experience. He stayed in the NWT for 30 years and still returns occasionally to visit friends and get back to nature. The memories of his time in the field sustain him even now. 

Together we discussed what it takes to be a long term-advocate for environmental protection. “You have to immerse yourself in nature,” he points out, “so that you can take that experience with you to the table when you are talking to decision-makers or other stakeholders. You sit in rooms in cities with no windows, not even pictures of the places you are hoping to protect and save. It’s hard to hold on to the importance of what needs to be done if you lose your connection to the land.”

I know what he means. Part of my decision to move to Canada and join CPAWS was to regain the sense of home and space that is important to me. I wanted to become a more effective advocate of our need to protect some of the most the amazing places on this Earth.

“I take pictures to help Canadians and others see what an wonderful country we have and encourage them to make their own trips to the outdoors. In the end, nothing can replace the actual experience,” he tells me.

Thank you Chris for sharing your story, pictures, and video with those of us not yet lucky enough to experience caribou in person!

For more information about what you can do for barren ground caribou, sign up to be a CPAWS caribou supporter. It’s the best way to stay informed on the state of our country’s caribou and their protection.


Credits: Map courtesy of Environment and Natural Resources, Northwest Territories Government. All photos and video footage courtesy of Christopher O'Brien.