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Banff National Park

Caribou 101: A Primer

Caribou © Mark Bradley 

Caribou have lived in the central Canadian Rocky Mountains since the last ice age. But, because caribou’s preferred habitat is located far from most park facilities, sightings were always a rare treat for visitors to Banff National Park.

Caribou 101: A Primer (PDF 1.1 MB)

Who’s who of caribou

When we think of caribou, we often envision vast herds of animals migrating great distances across a seemingly barren northern landscape. These are the barren-ground caribou of the Arctic.

Peary caribou are only found in Canada’s arctic islands.

Woodland caribou inhabit boreal forest and mountain regions from Newfoundland to British Columbia and across the three territories. Woodland caribou are the only subspecies found in Alberta and British Columbia. 

Map of caribou species distribution in Canada © Parks Canada 
Map of caribou range in Canada © Hinterland Who's Who ( 2010. Used with permission.

Shrinking habitat

Caribou and reindeer belong to the same species, Rangifer tarandus. They once ranged across the Arctic, throughout the forested regions of Canada, and into parts of the northern United States.

Human activity, development, and changing predator-prey systems have forced the southern edge of caribou range northward, isolating many populations.

Several caribou populations are in trouble and are now listed as Species at Risk.

Staying alive

Caribou are usually found in and near the alpine. In winter, caribou rely on lichens that grow in areas rarely used by deer, elk and moose. In doing so, they separate themselves from other large prey species and the predators they attract.

Woodland caribou also travel in small groups for most of the year, improving their chances of eluding the search patterns of predators like wolves. This evolved behaviour helps them survive in spite of a lower reproductive rate than other members of the deer family.

A lone, male caribou Tree lichen

Did you know...

When caribou run... they click! The sound comes from tendons slipping over bones in their feet. A trotting herd of caribou sounds like a horde of tourists with cameras.

Snowshoe, shovel and paddle... large, crescent-shaped hooves double as snowshoes and deftly dig through crusty snow. The concave hooves also make great paddles, enabling caribou to swim with ease.

Part algae, part fungus... lichens grow on the ground and in trees. They make up 60-80% of the winter diet of Alberta’s Woodland caribou, and roughly 30% of their summer diet. Although lichens are a high-energy, highly digestible snack, they are not a protein powerhouse. When spring arrives, caribou are eager to switch to nitrogen-rich green vegetation. 

The name caribou... may be a corruption of the Mi’kmaq name for the animal, xalibu, which means “the one who paws”.

For the record

Map of historic caribou range in Banff National Park Caribou range in Banff National Park
© Parks Canada

The earliest written record of caribou in Banff National Park dates back to 1902, when guide Jimmy Simpson tracked two animals in the Siffleur Valley.

The highest count in the park was 23 caribou in 1989. By the mid-1990s, an estimated 5-10 animals remained. Then, in 2009, an avalanche on Mt. Hector killed the park's last remaining caribou.

Restoring a self-sustaining herd requires human intervention. Parks Canada is looking at ways to help keep caribou on the land in Alberta.

For information:

Jesse Whittington
Wildlife Biologist
Banff National Park