Book Review: Caribou and the North: A Shared Future by Monte Hummel and Justina C. Ray

Quick: What is your favorite ungulate? If Monte Hummel and Justina C. Ray have their way, you will answer with one resounding word: “CARIBOU!”

In Caribou and the North: A Shared Future, Hummel and Ray use their expertise on these cold-loving herbivores and on the science of conservation to provide a fact-filled, highly persuasive bio-graphy of caribou and the “North” they inhabit. (Hummel is President Emeritus of the World Wildlife Life Fund-Canada, and Ray is Executive Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society.) Even if you are not an ungulate lover or prefer tropical warmth to boreal chill, Caribou and the North is an engaging introduction to these animals and how crucial they are to their environment.

Hummel and Ray begin with the biology of caribou, giving readers a head-full of distinguishing facts. For example, they make clear that there is not just one type of caribou but instead three “ecotypes,” classified by their habitat: migratory tundra, boreal forest, and mountain. While sharing the qualities that make caribou unique, such as a diet consisting mostly of lichens and the reuse of particular calving grounds each year, the different ecotypes each have special characteristics, habits, risk statuses, and sensitivities.

But whatever their differences, the three ecotypes of caribou all share an essential, symbiotic relationship with the places and peoples of the North (i.e., Canada and Alaska). Hummel and Ray do a beautiful job of presenting this symbiosis through both data and anecdotes from a wide spectrum of Northerners. As the authors note, caribou “sustain people, but they are revered for more than the essentials of life, such as food and clothing. Caribou weave their way through stories of creation, values, and respect for the land itself.”1 Because “caribou have both shaped and been shaped by the North,” the two do indeed have “a shared future,” being “inseparable, braided together by the larger forces of nature that have produced both” (38).

For the peoples of the North, including aboriginal groups such as the Inuit and Dene as well as non-native latecomers, this interdependence has profound significance. Hummel and Ray relate how “a conservative estimate” of the monetary food value that caribou provide to aboriginals reaches a staggering $100 million per year (64). And these peoples also depend on the caribou for many other things, such as clothing, tools, thread, and lamp fuel. Non-aboriginal northerners also place a large symbolic significance on caribou, seeing them as iconic, representing everything that characterizes the North as a place of pristine wilderness.

Or maybe not entirely pristine. Hummel and Ray devote great attention to the caribou as an essential element in the North because their status “at the very centre of the food web of northern ecosystems” (22) makes them keenly sensitive to pressure and environmental degradation. The authors are careful to point out how adaptable caribou are to changing conditions, along with how much human science still does not know about them. Nevertheless, caribou are at great risk because they require vast amounts of open space in order to adapt and recover from stress–be it predation, insects, excessive hunting, or industrial development. So the different ongoing and impending forms of development (oil and gas exploration, metal and diamond mining, etc.) are especially dangerous when added to the global pressure of climate change.

Although there are many gaps in knowledge about caribou, Hummel and Ray sound a convincing alarm about our need to protect them (and thereby the North, and thereby the Earth). To this end, they offer “Specific Steps and Responsibilities” (the title of chapter 11) for citizens, lawmakers, industry, and non-profits alike. Hummel and Ray also give ten “litmus tests for the future” in chapter 8, including permanently protecting calving grounds of the famous Porcupine herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, allowing locally conducted land-use planning to determine what happens in caribou habitat, and setting harvest (i.e., hunting) limitations (131-35).

While section four, in which outside caribou experts give detailed profiles of each ecotype, may be a little too in-depth for readers who are not caribou lovers, the majority of Caribou and the North is truly interesting “northern exposure.” Hummel and Ray will likely draw you into the story whether you would like to find out more about caribou, the cultures of northern aboriginals, or how anthropogenic climate change is stressing and will continue stressing both the animals and the peoples of the North.

Caribou and the North definitely proves how these hoofed nomads, the peoples, and the places of the North have a shared future–a future that faces serious threats on a changing planet. In our world today, it may be a bit naïve to call any species a “keystone,” and it is downright annoying to identify one animal as a “canary in the coalmine.” (I think we have more canaries than coalmines at this point! Talk about killing a metaphor.) Still, Robert Redford seems to speak a profound truth in his foreword to the book: “So go the caribou, so goes the North; and so goes the North, so go the caribou” (17).

After finishing Caribou and the North, you may well find yourself hoping that neither of them “goes” anywhere! For if either disappears, both will be gone…and if both are gone, then so many other life-forms will not be far behind.

1. Hummel, Monte, and Justina C. Ray. Caribou and the North: A Shared Future. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008. 22.

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