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Woodland Caribou

Species Spotlight: Woodland Caribou
By Deborah Carr

Vital Signs

Woodland caribou

Common name: Woodland caribou
Latin name: Rangifer tarandus caribou
Status under SARA: In 2002, COSEWIC listed woodland caribou as threatened overall and specifically, four populations at risk: Atlantic-Gaspésie, Boreal, Southern Mountain (BC, AB) and Northern Mountain (YK, NT, BC).
Range: Boreal forest in all provinces / 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

The Story

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.

Pair of woodland caribou
A pair of caribou navigate a snowy slope. Photo: Environmental Stewardship Branch, WLAP, Kootenay Region

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.

The federal government released a proposed recovery strategy for the boreal woodland caribou in August, 2011, but it’s significantly weaker than it needs to be.
The Facts

Canada has three types of caribou – Peary, barren-ground, woodland. These types are sub- classified by eco-type, based on where they live and how they behave.
This 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 the 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 grey coats, with thick creamy white on shoulders, chests, bellies and under 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.
The caribou use perfectly designed concave hooves with sharp edges to locate and dig through the snow in search of lichens. The scoop shape also serves as an efficient paddle for swimming. 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 only one calf each spring, seeking traditional calving grounds in very remote, isolated areas. When these areas are compromised by commercial operations, calf survival is affected. Calf survival rates are 30-50%, significantly reducing the herd’s ability to recover when numbers are threatened.

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 user groups strong.

Woodland caribou in Gros Morne National Park
Lone caribou in Gros Morne National Park.

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.
What You Can Do

  1. Join and/or support environmental organizations that work to protect wildlife habitat.
  2. The at-risk boreal woodland caribou desperately needs a strong recovery strategy — and proposed government plans don’t go nearly far enough. Send a letter to the Environment Minister demanding stronger measures to protect the boreal woodland caribou.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Spread the word. Build your own website or blog with facts and information about caribou protection. For a wonderful example, see mountaincaribou.org.
  6. Reduce your own paper and forest product consumption. Recycle religiously.


Deborah Carr is a freelance journalist and avid outdoorswoman who lives on the shores of the Bay of Fundy.

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