September 21, 1996

An Edmonton scientist solves the cruel riddle of dying muskoxen and endangered Peary caribou
Words and photos by
Southam Newspapers
"It was gruesome. They had apparently tried to dig down to get at some food, and when they discovered there was nothing there but sea ice, they just gave it up. The snow had apparently hardened around their bellies and that's why some of them were still standing upright."

Biologist Frank Miller

EDMONTON - When Edmonton biologist Frank Miller descended on his High Arctic camp on Bathurst Island last summer, he knew it would be his last field season as a scientist for the Canadian Wildlife Service.

After 31 years of researching caribou in the Far North, he was hopeful his career would end on a high note.

The endangered Peary caribou -- found only on Canada's High Arctic Islands -- appeared to be firmly on the road to recovery after more than two decades of slow, but steady growth. Miller's optimism, however, was short-lived.

Over the next two weeks, Miller saw precious few animals and not a single newborn calf. What Miller did see were more than 200 muskoxen and caribou carcasses.
Peary caribou Three endanged Peary Caribou

Most of them had died on land, but others had taken their last breath on sea ice. Some dead muskoxen were still standing in deep snow. Frozen stiff. Leaning against each other like statues knocked over by the wind.

"It was gruesome," Miller recalls. "They had apparently tried to dig down to get at some food, and when they discovered there was nothing there but sea ice, they just gave it up. The snow had apparently hardened around their bellies and that's why some of them were still standing upright."

Miller found just 91 caribou and 97 muskox still alive.

Assuming that the survey was representative of what was happening elsewhere, he calculated numbers had tumbled to about 500 caribou and just 430 muskoxen on the entire Bathurst Island complex.

In grisly terms, it meant that in a region of some 26,620 square km, about 80 per cent of the species had perished. Two decades of recovery had been wiped out, leaving the Peary caribou in particular more vulnerable than ever to extinction.

In retrospect, there had been signs of trouble.

In October 1995, for example, there were reports that 100 or more Peary caribou suddenly bolted from Bathurst Island across the sea ice towards the tiny Inuit community of Resolute on Cornwallis Island, only to be greeted by the guns of hunters.
Muskox bones Muskoxen bones

It was the first time such a mass movement had been witnessed by locals. It was an especially unlikely one given the desert-like conditions on Cornwallis -- the island is little more than a sparsely vegetated gravel pit. Had the animals not been killed by rifles, they would almost certainly have perished from a lack of food.

There were also problems with caribou Miller had been tracking from his base in Edmonton, using satellite transmitters, since July 1993.

Only one of the seven collared animals was still alive last summer -- a female which had spent 18 months on what was nothing more than a sandbar of an island off the northwest coast of Cornwallis.

Miller so much doubted she could still be alive that when he flew north in the summer of 1995, he made a special trip to the island to find out. She was. But after moving to the north end of Cornwallis this past spring, Miller has reservations about her future as well.

Ironically, this was not the first catastrophic die-off seen by Miller. When he first focused on Peary caribou in the early 1970s -- after years of researching the larger, more populous barren-ground caribou on the mainland -- little was known about the animal save for a 1961 survey that estimated the Canadian population at 26,000.

In the summer of 1973-74, however, there were few adults to be found and virtually no calves. Miller searched for an explanation, wondering if maybe he had done something wrong, to somehow miss most of the animals.

Then, while combing through meteorological records, he found a plausible answer to the mystery.
Miller Miller takes some measurements

As it turned out, the autumns and early springs of 1973-74 were unusual ones, punctuated by episodes of freezing rain, heavy snowfall and recurring thaws and freezes that turned much of the Queen Elizabeth Islands into a giant, snow-covered skating rink.

The ice was so thick in places it was impossible for animals to dig through to the vegetation. Where it was thinner, animals had to spend so much energy digging through it that what they got in terms of nutrition was hardly worth the effort.

Assuming that something similar had happened last year, Miller once again looked at the meteorological records. He found the likely answer.

"Apparently, Resolute experienced freezing rain for three days at the end of September and two more episodes in October that left them with an inch of ice," he says.

"If the same had happened on Bathurst Island, it would have locked up the vegetation just as it had done in the early 1970s. It may well be that some of the animals escaped to other islands. But I'm convinced that the majority of them simply starved to death."

The big difference this past year, says Miller, is that the icing occurred so early in the season that most animals didn't stand a chance of making it to spring.

This spurred their desperate attempt of abandoning the island or pawing for food beneath snow on sea ice.

Miller now estimates the Peary caribou population at no more than 2,000 -- unless there's been a dramatic increase on Melville Island in recent years. Because Melville is so far from an air base, Miller hasn't been able to survey it for six years.

Just what the future holds for one of Canada's most endangered animals is hard to predict.

If, on one hand, the freak weather conditions experienced in the Arctic this past year are a symptom of a gradual warming of the planet -- as some scientists suggest -- then we may well be witness to the end of the era for the Peary caribou.

Warmer and wetter autumns followed by frequent freezing and thawing will only make life that much tougher for the animals.

But Miller's hunch and hope is that the species will bounce back.

"These animals have been around for a long time.

"And as bleak and inhospitable as their environment seems to be, they've managed to survive," he says.

"That, I think, says a lot about this animal. And while we may well have not seen the low point yet, the High Arctic covers such a large area that even if we do lose a few more animals, there's always a good chance of recolonization.

"Then all you need is several consecutive favorable years of reproduction.

"It's just going to take a long time to happen."

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