The Woodland Caribou: A declining species

The Woodland Caribou: A declining species

March 15, 2019

On Monday, March 11, Brandeis University conducted the seventh annual Mandel Lectures in the Humanities, featuring the first of three lectures by Professor Nancy Langston on the topic of “Ghost Species: the Uncertain Future of Woodland Caribou in the Anthropocene.” Each year, the Mandel Lectures in the Humanities series attempts to promote the study of humanities at Brandeis University and contains a distinguished scholar who conducts three lectures and an informal seminar. Nancy Langston is a Professor of Environmental History at Michigan Technological University with a PhD in environmental studies. She has written four books, titled “Where Land and Water Meet,” “Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares,” “Toxic Bodies” and “Sustaining Lake Superior.”

Professor Langston’s talk described many of the challenges that the woodland caribou, a species of reindeer, has faced over the years and how human actions have impacted the its population. The woodland caribou has almost never been abundant. Its main predators are wolves and the caribou avoid their predators by running away. This species invests a lot of time and energy into a single calf rather than creating a lot of offspring and not being able to invest energy into any.

Langston began her talk by posing the questions “how can environmental communities contribute to anthropological studies?” and “[w]hat happens when we consider the deep entanglement of people and the environment?” She highlighted how humans have an enormous impact on the environment and can create major ecological alterations. A new epoch marking the rise of humans has even been created, titled the Anthropocene, which is defined as the time period beginning with significant human impacts on the ecosystems and geology of Earth. Langston continued, describing the importance of human actions and how individuals need to be conscious of how the outcomes of their actions will affect Earth’s ecosystems.

Langston then shifted to illustrating the obstacles that the woodland caribou species has experienced over the years. Specifically, the woodland caribou has never been abundant, even when the populations were widespread. The species previously almost went extinct in 2013. Over the years the species has been hunted and viewed as expensive meat. Oftentimes, many populations of the woodland caribou are cut off from each other by human industrialization or get trapped in situations with their predators, wolves, which causes the populations to become dangerously low. While populations of the woodland caribou have been hunted and have struggled over the years, some indigenous populations have domesticated these reindeer and live in harmony with them.

Langston continued, highlighting future ideas to help the woodland caribou increase their numbers. These ideas include assisted migration in areas where there is no more than 36 percent human industrialization and development. Langston lastly questioned the audience as to whether or not the woodland caribou should be saved and the sacrifices people are willing to make in order to save this species. Currently, the woodland caribou species is less vulnerable to climate change and is therefore easily able to adjust to warm weather.

Humans today live in a world of entanglements, specifically in relationships with animals. Humans depend on animals, yet we have caused the extinction of many and will continue to cause these extinctions in the future. At the same time, our interactions with animals make us human and have shaped our culture, language and genetics. Humans need to rethink how we interact with not just the woodland caribou species in a warming world, but all species of animals. Humans are not at the mercy of others, animals are at the mercy of humans, therefore it is our duty to work towards saving this planet.

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