Caribou recovery at Parks Canada: out of sight—but not out of mind
It's wintertime in Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador. The Torngat Wildlife, Plants, and Fisheries Secretariat work with Parks Canada and other partners to prepare for a 35-day remote survey of the Torngat Mountains Caribou herd. By the end of the field season, the crew will have surveyed 1,034 caribou over 145 hours across 16,000 km.
A lot of collaboration—and resources—are needed to study these largely at-risk animals. Recovering caribou in Canada remains a priority for Parks Canada, both inside and outside of park borders.
Where the caribou roam
There is one place that people can often see caribou… on the Canadian 25¢ coin! But in nature, the iconic caribou are rarely seen. They prefer undisturbed, colder habitats.
A map showing the habitat range of caribou populations across Canada, along with places administered by Parks Canada. Labeled sites indicate those with caribou presence.
Each caribou population is numbered from 1 to 10 with a unique colour representing the area of that caribou’s habitat range. Dolphin & Union  and Barren-ground  caribou populations are Barren-ground caribou, while the Eastern Migratory , Newfoundland , Boreal , Northern Mountain , Southern Mountain , Torngat Mountains , and Atlantic-Gaspésie  are Woodland Caribou.
Three different caribou populations in Canada can be grouped by their habitat use and migration patterns:
Woodland Caribou choose habitats where they can avoid predators. In most of Canada, they live in mature and old-growth forests. They can also be found in mountainous areas.
Barren-ground Caribou live in arctic tundra environments. Some migrate long distances in large herds to their breeding grounds—they find protection in numbers.
Peary Caribou are the most northern population of caribou in North America. They are only found in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and Nunavut. They travel in small groups across sea ice and the Arctic tundra.
Threats to caribou in Canada
While caribou live in some of Canada’s most remote locations, they still face risks that threaten their very survival. Some of these include:
- habitat loss: roads and pipelines remove mature forests that caribou need. Predators have easier access into caribou habitat. Forestry and fires transform mature forests into young forests that moose and elk prefer.
- altered predator-prey dynamics: more prey species like moose and elk mean more wolves. More wolves mean greater risk of caribou predation.
- human disturbance and predator access: winter trail users, like skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers, can push caribou off their favoured habitats. They can create packed trails that lead predators to caribou habitat. Caribou can also be disturbed by dogs and aircrafts, or be killed by cars on roads.
- small populations: some populations do not have enough females to sustain their population. Small herds are especially vulnerable to predators, disease, and accidents like avalanches.
- climate change: warming temperatures can alter snow and ice levels, making it hard for caribou to find important winter food. Climate change is causing more insect outbreaks and wildfires, leading to disturbance and habitat loss.
Parks Canada collaborates with others to address these threats through conservation actions. Watch this video from Gros Morne National Park and see the work they’re doing to protect caribou:
Field Notes: Connecting landscapes for Newfoundland Caribou
Text transcript0:04-0:05 [Tom] Hi, welcome to Gros Morne National Park.
0:05-0:07 My name is Tom Knight.
0:07-0:09 I'm a biologist here with Parks Canada.
0:09-0:10 We’ve got a beautiful, calm morning here
0:10-0:12 in Gros Morne National Park...
0:12-0:16 …heading into the park to do the caribou habitat work.
0:17-0:19 So you can see the beautiful landscape
0:19-0:20 part of Gros Morne National Park in the Lowlands.
0:21-0:22 We can also see in that landscape
0:22-0:25 there's some power lines and roads and the community.
0:25-0:27 And so if you're a caribou, these are all things
0:27-0:28 that are a part of your landscape.
0:29-0:31 This project looks at the cumulative impacts
0:31-0:32 of all of this sort of development,
0:33-0:35 including climate change
0:35-0:36 and other things that happen on the landscape,
0:36-0:38 like forestry and agriculture.
0:38-0:39 How do those impact
0:39-0:41 caribou movement through the landscape?
0:53-0:55 So the Newfoundland Caribou is actually considered
0:55-0:58 its own kind of unique population genetically
0:58-0:59 and in their behavior and whatnot.
0:35-0:36 They are listed as special concern
1:01-1:03 under the Species at Risk Act,
1:03-1:04 which means that
1:04-1:06 they're not near extinction or anything,
1:06-1:08 but that we should be keeping a close eye on them
1:08-1:11 and planning for things like future habitat.
1:13-1:14 You can actually see there's
1:14-1:16 quite a few tracks, some caribou and moose.
1:17-1:18 Gros Morne National Park and
1:18-1:19 all national parks in general,
1:19-1:21 really provide a core habitat.
1:21-1:23 In the summertime,
1:23-1:25 they move into the hills where they have their calves.
1:26-1:26 But these lowlands are really important,
1:26-1:28 in winter time especially,
1:27-1:30 when they come and they can crater down through the snow,
1:30-1:34 and find nutrition and the vegetation they need to survive the winter.
1:35-1:36 So a big part of our project
1:36-1:38 is trying to protect caribou by predicting
1:39-1:41 where they will potentially cross roads
1:41-1:42 and show up on highways.
1:42-1:44 And we can do things like install these signs behind me.
1:45-1:47 The more motorists are aware of these issues,
1:47-1:48 the safer that they can be
1:48-1:49 and the safer it is for the caribou.
1:57-2:00 We're just getting set up here with all the gear.
2:00-2:02 We can take a look here and see
2:02-2:03 what Doug and Rory are up to…
2:03-2:04 [Doug and Rory] Hello!
2:04-2:06 [Doug] So what we're trying to do is
2:07-2:08 get a good understanding of
2:08-2:10 what type of habitats caribou are using.
2:10-2:12 So part of that work
2:12-2:14 is moving on the ground and collecting
2:14-2:16 information on land cover types.
2:16-2:18 We're just getting the drone prepped now for our flight.
2:18-2:20 This camera captures imagery
2:21-2:23 the same as you'd get from a high-altitude satellite.
2:23-2:25 This will allow us to characterize
2:25-2:27 the habitat that the caribou are using.
2:27-2:31 The camera, which Rory has, captures two types of imagery:
2:31-2:32 one is regular picture,
2:32-2:34 but it also captures thermal imagery,
2:34-2:37 which we hope to use to detect animal locations.
2:37-2:39 [Tom] So if you passed over a caribou,
2:39-2:41 then it would actually show up as a thermal image?
2:41-2:43 [Doug] Yeah, that's what we're testing.
2:44-2:46 [Tom] All right, so we’ve got Rory ready
2:46-2:48 to take off with the drone here...
2:49-2:50 And she's lifting off.
2:54-2:57 [Rory] You can see the drone flying in a grid pattern
2:57-2:59 over the study area.
3:00-3:01 [Tom] Okay. So what are we looking at now, Rory?
3:01-3:02 That's interesting.
3:02-3:04 [Rory] So here we're looking down from the drone
3:04-3:07 and we're seeing the caribou habitat.
3:07-3:10 There's a nice mosaic of lichen
3:10-3:12 and different types of mosses.
3:12-3:16 Lichen is one of their main dietary resources.
3:16-3:18 [Tom] So that noise we're hearing is that
3:18-3:19 taking pictures or…
3:19-3:20 [Rory] That's the shutter, yes.
3:20 [Tom] Okay.
3:20-3:22 [Rory] And you can even see here on the side
3:23-3:25 there's the caribou paths.
3:25-3:27 It's rewarding seeing those trails.
3:28-3:29 It means we're in the right spot.
3:29-3:31 [Tom] Yeah. Yeah, for sure.
3:13-3:32 And really, a lot of the theme of this project,
3:32-3:33 the idea of connectivity and
3:33-3:36 caribou being able to move through a landscape safely
3:36-3:37 from one place to another...
3:38-3:40 So just coming out into the bog here,
3:40-3:42 while the drone is doing its thing.
3:42-3:44 Nous allons jeter un œil à certaines des plantes,
3:44-3:45 Just do a close up look.
3:45-3:47 The lichens, the white lichens you see there,
3:47-3:49 they're favorites of caribou during the winter.
3:49-3:53 And you can see it's a mix of sedges, mosses, lots of beautiful colors.
3:53-3:56 Sphagnum moss often turns this bright red.
3:56-3:58 [Rory] It's beeping us and telling us that the drone is.
3:58-3:59 [Tom] Okay.
3:59-4:00 [Rory] finished the flight and it's on its way
4:00-4:02 back to the landing point.
4:06-4:08 [Tom] So we had a couple of successful flights today.
4:09-4:11 This is something that's going to actually help map
4:11-4:14 the caribou habitat across the entire province,
4:14-4:15 across the whole island of Newfoundland.
4:16 Yeah, sure.
4:16-4:18 So what we'll do with that information
4:18-4:21 is take it back to the lab and that'll help
4:21-4:23 paint the picture of what type of habitat
4:23-4:25 caribou are using in this area.
Recovery in action
Caribou don't recognize boundaries like provinces, territories, conservation sites, and even countries. The lands administered by Parks Canada make up only a small part of caribou habitat. That’s why Parks Canada collaborates with many groups to protect and recover caribou. These include local Indigenous knowledge holders, other governments, and stakeholders.
Breeding a new generation of caribou
Parks Canada is proposing to undertake an innovative caribou conservation breeding program. This program is the first of its kind for caribou in Canada. It aims to rebuild small caribou herds in Jasper National Park in Alberta. Parks Canada is working with others on this, including:
- Indigenous peoples
- provincial governments
- non-governmental organizations
- and other experts
Watch a video about the changes in predator-prey relationships and small populations of caribou in Jasper. Watch another video about the caribou breeding program at Jasper National Park.
Text transcriptCaribou in Jasper National Park are in danger and need our help.
The Tonquin herd has fewer than 55 caribou and only about 9 breeding females.
The Brazeau herd has fewer than 15 caribou and only 3 breeding females.
The Maligne herd was declared locally extinct in 2020.
The root of the problem is complex, but can be linked to early park management practices.
In the early 1900s, wolf control programs kept wolf numbers very low.
Without many wolves, elk populations soared.
Then in 1959, wolf control practices ended abruptly.
With an abundance of elk for food, wolf population numbers quickly recovered and increased.
Wolves began competing among themselves for resources in the main valley.
They started travelling into less accessible caribou habitat more often.
Naturally, they preyed on caribou they came across.
As a result, caribou populations declined sharply until 2016.
Since the 1970s, the elk and wolf populations have steadily declined to more sustainable numbers.
Which means that today, the conditions are much better for caribou to thrive.
However, caribou populations are now too small to recover on their own.
If we don’t act now, the Tonquin and Brazeau herds will disappear.
The best option to rebuild these herds is to establish a caribou conservation breeding program.
Learn more about the caribou conservation breeding project in Part 2: Caribou Comeback.
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Text transcriptCaribou in Jasper National Park are in danger and need our help.
Since 2006, Parks Canada has taken actions to mitigate most threats through:
restoring and encouraging a natural wolf and elk population balance,
limiting the impacts of humans on caribou-wolf interactions,
and protecting critical caribou habitat.
These steps have created better conditions for caribou survival and recovery.
But these actions were not enough to overcome the high wolf populations of the past.
Caribou populations are now so small they cannot recover on their own.
The best option to rebuild these herds is to establish a caribou conservation breeding program.
Through conservation breeding, Parks Canada would:
capture a small number of wild caribou,
breed them in a protected facility,
release the caribou born in the facility into their natural ranges.
Based on what is learned, Parks Canada will adapt the project along the way.
But before we decide whether to move forward, we need to hear from you.
To be successful, we need to learn from Indigenous partners, stakeholders, and the public.
Have your say in the future of caribou in Jasper National Park.
To learn more, visit parkscanada.gc.ca/caribou-jasper
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Research and monitoring
Parks Canada researches and monitors caribou with many partners and other organizations. Staff at Nahanni National Park Reserve in the NWT are using DNA from scat to learn how caribou herds are connected.
While staff at Vuntut National Park in the Yukon are looking at the effects of climate change on caribou habitat.
Porcupine Caribou Summer Range Research at Vuntut National Park
0:00 [Soft Happy Music]
0:01 The Porcupine Caribou herd is one of the largest barren-ground herds in North America with around 218,000 animals.
0:08 Since time immemorial the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation has relied on caribou for survival.
0:15 Most barren-ground caribou herds in Canada are in decline.
0:22 Protecting the herd is important to preserving this species.
0:30 One reason Vuntut National Park was created is to protect caribou habitat.
0:37 The Park is co-managed with Vuntut Gwitchin Government and North Yukon Renewable Resources Council.
0:44 Climate change is expected to affect this area creating challenges for caribou.
0:50 The herd's summer range is above the Arctic Circle.
0:57 This area provides important food sources like leafy shrubs and flowering plants.
1:03 Parks Canada monitors the summer range.
1:10 The goal is to understand how climate change could affect caribou in the future.
1:18 There are 10 monitoring sites in prime caribou habitat.
1:26 These sites are remote and can only be accessed by helicopter.
1:35 Data loggers and trail cameras measure permafrost temperature.
1:42 the length of the snow season
1:49 and the vegetation growing season.
1:55 This information is used to help make decisions that affect caribou.
2:02 Managing the Park relies on Indigenous knowledge and western science.
2:09 So the herd is strong in the face of a changing environment.
2:17 Working together to build a bright future for caribou.
2:22 Like. Comment. Share.
2:30 Special thanks to Marty O’Brien for their collaboration and video footage.
2:35 Parks Canada
2:37 A message from the Government of Canada.
Parks Canada also conducts aerial surveys to count caribou at Pukaskwa National Park in Ontario. Caribou are monitored at Jasper in Alberta and at Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks in British Columbia using:
- aerial surveys
- remote cameras
- radio collars
- and scat analysis at Jasper
Reducing harm to caribou
Parks Canada is working to reduce harm to caribou in many ways. We’re making roads safer for caribou—and drivers—at Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland.
Area and trail closures at Jasper, Glacier, and Mount Revelstoke National Park help protect Mountain Caribou from disturbance and predators. Staff use radio collar data and observations to determine closure areas. These sites also implement wildlife flight guidelines to reduce disturbance to caribou.
Respecting these rules means you are helping caribou survive.
Mapping and protecting habitat
Caribou avoid disturbed habitats in order to dodge predators. Their movements are therefore good indicators of ecosystem health. Caribou are also an umbrella species. This means that protecting their habitat also helps the other plants and animals they live alongside.
Staff at Wapusk National Park in Manitoba are mapping caribou and their habitats with Indigenous and academic partners using remote cameras.
Tracking the movement of caribou in Newfoundland
Parks Canada and partners have collected collar data to study the movement of the Woodland Caribou in Newfoundland.
Identifying caribou habitat helped create the Main River Waterway Provincial Park—an area just outside of Gros Morne National Park.
Watch the path that a Woodland Caribou takes as it travels inside and outside of the national park boundaries to other nearby natural areas.
To restore the habitat of the endangered Peary Caribou, Qausuittuq National Park in Nunavut is tidying the tundra from industrial waste. Watch the video below to learn more.
Protecting the Peary Caribou in Qausuittuq National Park
0:01 The Peary caribou need help.
0:07 The herd, once 50, 000 strong, has declined by 74 percent since the 1960s.
0:13 They cover vast territories across Canada's High Artic
0:19 They have sustained Inuit for millennia.
0:24 Inuit made caribou conservation a priority within Qausuittuq National Park
0:30 The park covers 11, 000 km2 of prime caribou habitat on Bathurst Island, Nunavut
0:40 But it needs some cleaning up
0:45 Empty fuel barrels left by exploration companies litter the ground
0:49 Preventing caribou from feeding in these areas and impeding their movement.
0:57 Parks Canada and local Inuit made removing these barrels a priority.
1:02 So far, 194 empty fuel barrels have been removed from the park.
1:08 These barrels were transported by helicopter to the nearest landing strip.
1:15 From there, they were flown by aircraft to Resolute Bay for cleaning and crushing.
1:20 The community celebrated the removal of this waste material.
1:27 This important clean-up work continues.
1:33 Parks Canada is helping local youth connect to the park through engaging activities.
1:40 Inuit have lived here for millennia and will continue to do so
1:44 just like the Peary caribou.
1:51 Like. Comment. Share.
1:57 Special thanks to: Canadian Wildlife Service/ L. Pirie-Dominix Government of Nunavut/ M. Anderson for the Peary caribou photographs
2:00 Parks Canada
2:02 Copyright Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada represented by Parks Canada, 2019.
Building collaborative relationships
Many Indigenous peoples in Canada deeply value caribou. Caribou help them maintain cultural and spiritual connections to the land. With a focus on Indigenous rights and values, Parks Canada collaborates with many groups to create plans to support stewardship opportunities, like at Wapusk and Jasper.
Remember the Torngat Mountains Caribou survey in Labrador? Parks Canada collaborated with many groups who have a hand in caribou management. This included the:
- Torngat Wildlife, Plants and Fisheries Secretariat
- Nunatsiavut Government
- Makivik Corporation
- Nunavik Parks
- Government of Quebec
- and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
Out of sight—but never out of mind
The majority of places where Canadians live—caribou don’t. Many of us will never get the chance to see these majestic animals—but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t hold a special place in our hearts.
Caribou are resilient to Canada’s toughest climates. Yet, many caribou populations are facing steep declines—and they need our help. There are lots of ways that you can help:
- Learn about caribou in Canada and get involved in their conservation
- Share your opinions on caribou with friends, politicians, or in public consultations
- Do what you can to limit climate change
- Support initiatives that are good for mature and old-growth forests
- Practice good behaviour around wildlife so not to disturb them
- Follow rules in protected areas—slow down, stay on trails, and respect closures
- Give wildlife space. If you get the opportunity to see a caribou, do not approach them
- Report any caribou observations