Woodland Caribou – Southern Mountain population
Rangifer tarandus caribou
The caribou design is featured on the 25 cent circulation coin from the Royal Canadian Mint. It was created by Canadian artist Emmanuel Hahn and was first used in 1937
© Royal Canadian Mint
Throughout North America, woodland caribou range has retracted northward and most populations across Canada are now in decline. Canadian populations of woodland caribou are listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) as Endangered (Atlantic-Gaspésie), Threatened (Southern Mountain and Boreal), and Special Concern (Northern Mountain). Woodland caribou in Newfoundland and Labrador have been assessed as Not at Risk. Woodland caribou in Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks belong to the Threatened Southern Mountain population. Environment Canada and the Parks Canada Agency are the federal departments accountable under SARA for the recovery of Southern Mountain caribou in Canada. Recovery planning under SARA is conducted in cooperation with appropriate provinces, wildlife management boards and Aboriginal organizations, and in consultation with landowners, stakeholders and the public. Ahead of a formal recovery strategy, Parks Canada has implemented caribou conservation actions in the Mountain National Parks.
Woodland caribou in Jasper National Park © M. Bradley
What is the Woodland caribou?
Lichens are a caribou's primary food source in winter. In the summer, grasses, broad-leaved plants and herbs are added to the menu
© M. Bradley
Caribou and reindeer all belong to the same species, Rangifer tarandus. They are the only member of the deer family in which both males and females grow antlers, and they have unique adaptations for the harsh climates in which they live. Caribou have semi-hollow hair that traps warm air next to their skin to keep them insulated against the cold. Even their noses are covered with hair, and their tails and ears are small to help limit heat loss. Caribou have large crescent shaped hooves that spread out when they walk. These act like snowshoes in deep snow, like paddles for swimming and help them navigate through soggy muskeg. In winter, a caribou’s diet consists almost entirely of lichen. No other large mammal can survive on this food source. This allows caribou to live in habitats spatially separate from other deer species and their predators.
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.
Woodland caribou are a subspecies
of caribou found in the boreal forests and mountain regions of Canada from Newfoundland to British Columbia. They are a medium sized member of the deer family, rich brown in colour with white necks. Unlike the great herds of barren-ground caribou to the north, Woodland caribou are usually found in groups of only up to ten to twenty-five animals. During the fall rut season, one male will try to gather a larger group of females together while keeping other males away. Female caribou are usually three years old before they have their first calf and only have one calf per year. Calves are born in late May or early June.
Woodland caribou found in Jasper
, Mount Revelstoke
, and Glacier
National Parks belong to the Southern Mountain population
, distinct from most other Woodland caribou in their use of mountain habitat. They do not migrate like many other caribou but rather move elevationally in response to seasonal changes. Even within the Southern Mountain population, this elevational migration differs regionally in response to very different climates. Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks are in the Columbia Mountain Range, characterized by heavy snowfall in winter. Caribou in this region have adapted to take advantage of the deep snow, using this added height to reach lichen growing in the trees. Jasper and Banff National Parks in the Rocky Mountains are in a much drier climate and rarely get the snow depths seen in Revelstoke and Glacier. Caribou in these areas have adapted to searching out terrestrial lichens under the snow, and will descend in elevation as snow levels accumulate.
Where are woodland caribou found?
Historically, woodland caribou ranged across Canada from the islands of British Columbia (Haida Gwaii) to the islands of the east coast (Newfoundland and Labrador), north into the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and south into parts of the northern United States. Their range has been retracting northward, and in some areas woodland caribou have disappeared altogether. Today they are found in select pockets throughout the boreal forest of Canada. The Southern Mountain population consists of herds found in the mountains of Alberta and south eastern BC. Some of these herds make use of habitat in the mountain national parks but virtually none are found exclusively within a national park.
The current distribution of boreal caribou is shown in green. The estimated southern extent of historical caribou distribution is indicated by the dashed line
What is the status of woodland caribou?
Young calf in Jasper National Park. Females usually give birth to a single calf in late May or early June © M. Bradley
Woodland caribou found in Jasper, Banff, Mount Revelstoke, and Glacier National Parks belong to the Southern Mountain population listed as Threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). Within the Southern Mountain population at least one herd has been extirpated (no longer exists in that area) and several other herds are at risk of disappearing. The status of these caribou herds varies throughout the different regions and each herd faces distinct challenges on the road to successful recovery.
Banff National Park
It is unlikely that any caribou remain after a large avalanche in 2009 killed the last five individuals remaining in that herd.
Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks
There are approximately 7 caribou in the Columbia South herd that ranges through Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks and the adjacent provincial lands (2011 census) down from approximately 100 in 1994. Only thirty percent of the range of the Columbia South herd is within national park lands.
Jasper National Park
Jasper National Park has four main herds. The northern A la Peche herd, estimated at approximately 150 caribou, spends most of its time outside of the national park. In recent years surveys suggest the A la Peche population has remained relatively stable. Three additional herds of caribou are found in the southern part of Jasper National Park, spending most, if not all their time within the national park. The three herds use distinct regions of the park and rarely interact. In total, their numbers are estimated at approximately 79 animals and have been declining. The largest herd in south Jasper is the Tonquin herd located in the Tonquin valley. The other two herds, Maligne and Brazeau, both have less than 15 animals.
Why is the woodland caribou in danger?
Outside of the national parks, the primary cause of decline in woodland caribou populations is likely habitat loss. Mining, logging, oil and gas exploration and even excessive motorized recreation have all contributed to a fragmented and altered landscape often leading to increased populations of deer, moose, elk, and their predators. Caribou require large areas of land with low densities of predators; it is part of their anti-predator strategy: live in places where others don’t. They also require stands of old growth forest that support the growth of lichen and offer them protection from predators. As caribou numbers decline, increased predation and even natural events such as an avalanche can have devastating effects.
In the Mountain National Parks, five key threats to caribou populations have been identified.
1. Altered predator-prey dynamics: The key survival strategy of Caribou is to live in areas that have few predators, especially wolves. Caribou’s unique adaptations allow them to live in habitat that is unsuitable for other prey such as elk and deer, and therefore less attractive to predators. The deer and elk populations in the surrounding areas do however still affect the size of the predator populations, and as a result can increase the risk of predation on caribou. In Jasper and Banff National
Parks the predator-prey relationship is more complex as deer and especially elk are able to find refuge (areas that predators avoid) in the townsites and other high human-use areas. As predators avoid these areas, young deer and elk have higher than normal survival rates, and the populations are able to grow more quickly. The outcome is high prey populations around the townsites supporting increased numbers of predators, especially wolves. Wolves are very territorial and as numbers increase, young wolves will leave to find food, mates and territory elsewhere. Whether it is a lone wolf or a new pack establishing territory in the areas of low prey density that caribou inhabit, this increased risk of predation can be very costly to an already small population of caribou. The key to managing this threat is to minimize predator refuges for deer and elk, and to return prey numbers to a more natural abundance in these national parks. In the areas surrounding Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, forestry practices are creating altered landscapes attractive to deer and moose. This is affecting the number of predators in the area and increasing the risk of predation on caribou.
2. Predator Access: Caribou are naturally adapted to travel in deep snow giving them an advantage over wolves and other predators in winter. By staying in areas of deep snow caribou can effectively avoid predation as most predators cannot travel through snow as easily.
When so few caribou remain, any number killed by vehicles is too many
© M. Bradley
Packed trails can affect this natural buffer between caribou and wolves, giving wolves access to high-elevation and deep-snow caribou habitat. These unnatural paths into caribou habitat increase the risk of predation on caribou.
3. Human Disturbance: Mortality caused by vehicle collisions is the most direct and significant threat in areas where roads intersect caribou habitat. Recreational use of important habitat can also affect caribou, displacing them to less suitable areas.
4. Habitat Loss: Outside the mountain national parks, habitat loss is a major threat to woodland caribou. Within the parks, there is the potential for habitat loss due to fires. While fire plays an important role in ecosystem health, biologists are working with Parks Canada fire and vegetation specialists to minimize potential impacts to caribou habitat. Changes to human use of caribou habitat in the mountain national parks could also affect use of these areas by caribou. A secondary effect of habitat loss is changes in the predator/prey dynamic, as described above.
5. Small Population Effects: As has been shown in many other species, very small populations are more likely to decline than to increase. Even if recovery actions reduce the previous threats, some populations are likely too small to be sustained without the addition of more caribou. The loss of any animal from such small herds can be devastating and random events such as a large avalanche could wipe them out entirely.
Why protect woodland caribou?
Woodland caribou have a good sense of smell, useful for finding lichen under the snow © M. Bradley
Woodland caribou are an indicator of the health of our forests. If these forests can no longer support a species that has been here for thousands of years, it is a likely indication that other forest species are also in trouble. A rich diversity of species is reflective of a healthy and functioning ecosystem.
Environment Canada is leading the development of a SARA-compliant recovery strategy, to guide recovery of the Southern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou in Canada. Parks Canada is participating in the development of this strategy. The recovery strategy will be developed in cooperation and consultation with partners and stakeholders, and will be followed by one or more action plans for the population. Parks Canada is also legally responsible for the protection and management of southern mountain populations of Woodland Caribou on national park lands in Canada,under the Canada National Parks Act.
Why protect woodland caribou? Woodland caribou are just one strand in an ecosystem’s complex fabric of relationships. If this strand disappears, how many others will follow? Woodland caribou are symbols of the need for balance in a country defined by both its untouched wilderness and its natural resource extraction. What will our Canada look like in the future and will there still be a place for caribou?
What is Parks Canada doing to save the woodland caribou?
Parks Canada is committed to protecting woodland caribou and their habitat, and to contributing to their recovery. The Conservation Strategy for Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain Population, on Parks Canada Lands has been created to guide caribou conservation measures in the mountain national parks. Many actions have been implemented to reduce threats to caribou populations including seasonal closures of important caribou wintering habitat such as the Cavell Road closure in Jasper National Park and the Mount Klotz area closure in Mount Revelstoke National Park; strategic elk management plans to restore the predator-prey balance in Jasper and Banff National Parks; and establishing caribou crossing zones to reduce vehicle speeds on the Icefields Parkway in Jasper. These and other actions are being monitored to gauge their effectiveness.
Ongoing scientific research and monitoring of caribou, wolf, and elk populations is creating greater understanding of the complex relationships within mountain ecosystems. This knowledge helps guide sound management decisions and the implementation of effective recovery measures.
Caribou conservation actions will vary between the four mountain national parks of Jasper, Banff, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier, recognizing the unique circumstances in each park.
In Banff National Park, conservation will require the re-introduction of caribou. Research in the park indicates that the translocation of caribou could be used to successfully establish a new herd. Caribou habitat remains intact and plentiful within the historic range, and does not face the pressure of high human use or development.
On-going research is creating greater understanding of the complex relationships at play in mountain ecosystems © M. Bradley
The most significant cause of decline leading to the extirpation of caribou in Banff National Park is likely the increased numbers of predators in response to an inflated elk population. Monitoring of elk and wolf populations shows both these populations have declined, suggesting that conditions are favourable to support the persistence of introduced caribou.
While conditions may be favourable, finding a sufficient number of caribou is the challenge. A wild source herd that is stable enough to support the translocation of animals for this and/or other recovery initiatives has not been found. The alternative is to breed caribou in captivity and release yearlings and/or family groups to the wild. Banff National Park biologists have taken the lead on exploring this option in partnership with other Parks Canada scientists, Universities, and experts in the field. It has been determined that captive rearing would be a feasible option and suitable facilities have been investigated. If implemented, the translocation of these caribou to the wild would be combined with the management of elk populations and on-going monitoring of wolf pack movements to increase the probability of success in bringing caribou back to the wilderness of Banff National Park.
In Jasper National Park, caribou conservation actions will aim to reduce the 5 key threats and stem population declines in the southern herd. These recovery actions will require the support of other Parks Canada experts in areas like elk and fire management, and of recreationists and other park users when recovery actions may affect recreational opportunities. Within the southern Jasper population, two herds of caribou are already low in numbers, isolated and declining. To become self-sustaining, these herds will require augmentation with additional caribou. Jasper National Park biologists have also been very involved in the captive rearing research, and feasibility assessments that have been carried out in Banff. Similar to Banff, if implemented, herd augmentations would be combined with the management of elk populations and on-going monitoring of wolf pack movements. Conservation actions for the northern A la Peche herd will require cooperative management with the Alberta provincial government and commercial operators in the area.
Because very few of the Columbia South herd make use of Parks Canada lands, conservation actions will be largely guided by provincial and commercial partnerships and/or initiatives. Within Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, actions will focus on protecting important habitat, minimizing direct disturbance of caribou, monitoring and research, and careful fire management. Partnerships with the Province of British Columbia will also be explored.
Education and awareness are key to fostering concern and action in caribou recovery. Parks Canada continues to provide meaningful opportunities for people to learn about woodland caribou. Parks Canada website content aims to keep the public informed on current issues and actions in terms of species at risk like the Woodland caribou. Within the four Mountain National Parks, educational materials are available from general information handouts to interpretive panels in key areas of the parks. Parks Canada and other educational partners provide opportunities for students to learn about Woodland caribou through both hands-on in class presentations and remote learning experiences.
How can I help?
Woodland caribou in Mount Revelstoke National Park © A. WeberLearn more about Woodland caribou and share that knowledge. A little knowledge can go a long way to create understanding and appreciation for woodland caribou.
- If you visit Jasper, Banff, Mount Revelstoke, or Glacier National Parks stop by the Visitor Centre to find out how and where you can learn more about caribou in these parks.
- Travel responsibly in caribou habitat. If you see caribou, keep your distance to lessen your impact on the animals and avoid displacing them.
- Leave your dog at home when venturing into caribou habitat. Any dog, regardless of whether or not it looks like a wolf, can cause unnecessary stress for caribou.
- Be part of the scientific monitoring – report your sightings to the visitor centre! Where, how many, did you notice calves, and do you have photos? Avoid important caribou habitat in winter, there are many other beautiful places to explore. Ask at the local visitor centre.
- Be a good steward of your land, and support the efforts of organizations that help protect the environment. Try to reduce your ecological footprint.
Parks Canada: United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): Environment Canada: Hinterland Who’s Who?: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS):