Caribou 101: A Primer
Woodland Caribou sub-adult © Parks Canada / Alan Dibb
Caribou 101: A Primer (PDF 1.48 MB)
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 have always been a rare treat for visitors to Banff National Park.
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.
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. Caribou Range Map
Lichen (Cladina and Sterocolon) © Parks Canada / Jesse Whittington
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.
For the record
Summer caribou habitat - Pipestone Pass in Banff National Park © Parks Canada / Jesse Whittington
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. In 2009, an avalanche killed at least four.
Restoring a self-sustaining herd requires human intervention. Parks Canada is looking at ways to help keep caribou on the land in Alberta.
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