Species Spotlight: Woodland Caribou
Common name: Woodland Caribou
Latin name: Rangifer tarandus caribou
Status under SARA: Endangered (Atlantic-Gaspésie population), Threatened (Boreal population), and no status (Northern Mountain and Southern Mountain Populations); 2014 COSEWIC assessment: Endangered (Atlantic-Gaspésie population and Southern Mountain population (BC, AB)), Threatened (Boreal population), and Special Concern (Northern Mountain population (YK, NT, BC)).
Range: Boreal forest in all provinces and territories except NS, NB, and PEI
Life Span: 10 to 15 years
Size: 1 to 1.2 m high at the shoulder, 110 to 210 kg in weight.
Population Estimate: 1.5 million in Canada
- Canada has three types of Caribou – Peary, Barren-ground, and Woodland. These types are sub-classified by eco-type, based on where they live and how they behave.
- The Caribou, a member of the deer family, is the only ungulate (hoofed grazer) with antlers on both male and female. Adult bulls shed theirs in late autumn after mating, but females often retain theirs until spring. A bull’s antlers can grow as much as 2.5 cm per day.
- Woodland Caribou have grey-brown coats, with thick creamy white fur on their shoulders, chests, bellies and the underside of their tails. A longer layer of semi-hollow guard hair supplements a dense undercoat, providing insulation against cold and wind, and buoyancy while swimming.
- They are the only large mammals able to assimilate a primary winter diet of terrestrial and arboreal lichen. As snow melts, Caribou seek sedges, new leaves and flowers providing nitrogen, as pregnant cows rely on this to produce milk.
- Caribou have concave hooves with sharp edges which they use to locate and dig through the snow in search of lichens. The scoop shape also serves as an efficient paddle for swimming. Their two half-moon shaped toes grow longer in winter, providing purchase on icy surfaces.
- Scent glands at the base of the ankle dispense a distinct scent when the animal is startled, sending a warning message to other animals nearby.
- Caribou cows typically produce a single calf each spring, seeking traditional calving grounds in remote, isolated areas. When commercial operations compromise these areas, calf survival is affected. Calf survival rates are 30-50 percent, significantly reducing the herd’s ability to recover when numbers are threatened.
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 in large and undisturbed forests, wetlands, and bogs in every province of Canada except the Maritimes where the species was extirpated in the 1920s.
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 found in wetlands and valleys but, following the winter freeze, they use their 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 they also provide protection from predators such as wolves, lynx, Cougars, Coyotes, 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 the 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 high calf mortality rates means populations are very susceptible to stress.
The federal government released a proposed recovery strategy for the boreal Woodland Caribou in August, 2011, but it is significantly weaker than it needs to be.
What is Being Done
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 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 have been 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.
What You Can Do
- Support environmental organizations that work to protect wildlife habitats.
- Send a letter to the Environment Minister demanding stronger measures to protect the boreal Woodland Caribou. The at-risk boreal Woodland Caribou desperately needs a strong recovery strategy — and proposed government plans don’t go nearly far enough.
- Write to your provincial government to indicate your support of Caribou recovery initiatives in your province and to ask that they use wisdom and foresight in the development of guidelines to protect forest habitat.
- Be aware of forestry development projects within Caribou habitat, then make your concerns known to your MLA, premier’s office, forestry offices, and local newspaper.
- Spread the word. Build your own website or blog with facts and information about Caribou protection. For a wonderful example, see mountaincaribou.org.
- Reduce your own paper and forest product consumption. Recycle religiously.
Spotlight written by Deborah Carr, a freelance journalist and avid outdoorswoman who lives on the shores of the Bay of Fundy.