Species Spotlight: Woodland Caribou
Common name: Woodland caribou
The Mi’kmaq called them ‘xalibu’, meaning ‘one who paws’ or ‘snow shoveller’. Today, they are nicknamed ‘grey ghosts’ for their elusive, shy nature... a portent, perhaps, to their future, as numbers are in sharp decline throughout Canada.
The majestic woodland caribou roams large, undisturbed forests, wetlands, and bogs in every province of Canada, except the Maritimes where the species was extirpated in the 1920’s.
With a solid body built for stability and long legs to navigate deep snow, they travel the northern forests and might migrate great distances in search of food. They communicate with a series of grunts and clicks.
Through the summer, caribou seek green vegetation of wetlands and valleys, but following the winter freeze, they use keen scent to locate nutritious terrestrial lichen, which have high carbohydrate content and are easy to metabolize. Once winter’s crust deepens and firms enough to support their weight, herds move into mature coniferous forests seeking arboreal lichens, such as Old Man’s Beard and Witches Hair, which only grow on trees 80 years or older.
Caribou need large areas of undisturbed old growth woodland. This is directly connected to their survival as these forests not only provide a necessary food source, but protection from predators such as wolves, lynx, cougar, coyote, and bears. This also keeps them geographically separated from moose and deer carrying meningeal brain worm, which is fatal to caribou.
However, as industrial development pushes further north, the caribou are running out of suitable territory. Logging operations, oil and gas exploration and mining developments are cutting into these forests, opening up networks of roads and seismic lines that penetrate their isolated habitat and provide linear corridors for predators to travel. These roads and lines also enable recreational access by ATVs, snowmobiles, hunters and poachers. Regenerated forest areas attract elk, deer and moose, which prefer the tender shoots of young trees, increasing chance of disease. Their presence, in turn, supports predators that also prey on caribou.
Woodland caribou are facing disturbance on all levels and low birthrates coupled with a high calf mortality rate means populations are very susceptible to stress.
While it may appear that overall caribou numbers are high, if little happens to halt the decimation of habitat, existing populations will spiral down quickly. Ensuring the long-term health of boreal ecosystems is mandatory for survival of the woodland caribou, but so far, governments have made little headway to adequately protect forest within the caribou range. The challenge facing recovery teams is that complex recovery strategies are expensive, resources limited and pressure from commercial user groups strong.
Research and monitoring activities are ongoing, but are difficult due to the large areas the caribou cover and the unpredictability of their movements. Provincial and Territorial recovery plans have been drafted and best practices for forest management and backcountry tourism operators revised.
Some caribou from healthy populations have been relocated to other areas to increase population size and widen the genetic pool.
In many areas, hunting of caribou has been closed, restricted, or managed, while in others, hunting allocations for predators, deer, moose and elk have been increased in areas adjacent to caribou habitat.
Meanwhile, stewardship and informational programs are raising public awareness and generating support.