Caribou are to Inuit, Dene, and other Arctic people what bison were to the North American Indians. When bison were wiped out on the Great Plains, tribal and First Nations cultures collapsed and never fully recovered.
The absence of caribou in a future Arctic would be just as devastating. Four or five caribou can save a family living in a remote village or hamlet between $2,000 and $4,000 annually in food costs. The importance of these animals, however, extends far beyond scales of economy. Visit any community in Alaska, northern Canada, northern Scandinavia, Greenland, or Arctic Russia and you see caribou in the clothes people wear, the stories they write and tell, and the artwork they create. Like the polar bear, the caribou plays a near mythical role in many people's lives. Each time a hunter kills a caribou, an offering is made to God or the Creator.
Overhunting, however, is one reason caribou have declined in some places. Until 2009, the annual aboriginal harvest from the Bathurst herd alone was between 4,000 and 7,000 animals. Many of them were cows, which are key to the sustainability of a herd. According to one study, the number of breeding females in the herd fell from 203,800 in 1986 to just 16,400 in 2009.