Quick facts
Caribou

Height: 1.0 to 1.2 m at the shoulder
Weight: 110 to 210 kg
Eats: Lichen, grasses, shrub leaves, herbs, mushrooms
Calving season: May-June
Offspring: One calf per year
Rutting season: September-October
Lifespan: 8-15 years
SARA Status (2003): Threatened
COSEWIC Status (2014): Endangered

An icon of wilderness

Caribou live in some of Canada’s wildest ecosystems. Canadian caribou are found in mountains and boreal forests from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador, in the boreal forests and tundra of the northern Territories, and as far north as the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Caribou are members of the deer (Cervidae) family. While caribou are known as reindeer in other parts of the world, both caribou and reindeer are considered the same species (Rangifer tarandus).

Caribou are highly adapted to their environment; as a result, there is a diversity of subspecies based on their size and appearance, where they live, and how they behave. There are three main types of caribou in Canada:

Introducing woodland caribou

Infographic - Text version

Introducing woodland caribou:

  • Caribou survive winters on a diet of lichen. No other large mammal can survice on this extremely slow growing and protein-poor food source, allowing caribou to live away from other members of the deer family and their predators.
  • They are the only member of the deer family in which both the males and females have antlers. Males lose theirs in early November, but females keep theirs until spring.
  • Caribou are hairy from head to toe. Their hair is hollow, which traps body heat inside the hairs.
  • Their ears and tail are small, covered with hair and tucked close to their bodies.
  • High-heel-like dew claws splay out and increase hoof size. In winter, hoof edges grow. This protects hoof pads from contacting snow and improves digging power.
  • Their large hooves act like snowshoes, spreading out wide to keep them on top of the snow. They also work well as shovels for digging and paddles for swimming!
  • Flaps in their noses open and close to help keep their body temperature just right. Also, they can smell lichen even under deep snow.

Woodland caribou are found in the boreal forests and western mountain regions of Canada. Unlike the great migratory herds of barren-ground caribou to the north, woodland caribou usually wander in small groups and travel between different parts of their ranges depending on the season.


Mountain caribou subpopulations

Caribou that live in Jasper National Park are part of a group of woodland caribou called southern mountain woodland caribou.

Jasper National Park is home to four herds of southern mountain caribou: the Maligne, Tonquin and Brazeau herds, and the À La Pêche herd which spends time in Jasper National Park, Willmore Wilderness Park, and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

There are three groups of southern mountain woodland caribou:

  • Northern Mountain caribou live north of the Peace River from west-central British Columbia to Yukon and Northwest Territories in the north.
  • Central Mountain caribou live south of the Peace River, in the Rocky Mountains along the border of BC and Alberta.
  • Southern Mountain caribou live only in central and southeastern British Columbia where snow is deep in winter so they eat primarily tree lichens.

*The last remaining animals of the Purcells South and South Selkirks herds were moved to join the North Columbia herd in 2019.

 

Threats

The Tonquin, Brazeau, and Maligne caribou herds in Jasper National Park are declining.

Altered predator-prey dynamics

Human actions can indirectly increase the population of other prey species like deer, elk, and moose and their shared predator, wolves. When Jasper National Park was established in 1907, the possible impact of our actions was less understood. Between 1920 and 1959, elk reintroduction and wolf control created an imbalance that had lasting effects on caribou herds in Jasper for decades.

Small population effects

The loss of any animal in a small population can be devastating. Small herds are especially vulnerable to predators, disease, and accidents like avalanches. Caribou herds in Jasper have become too small to recover on their own.   

Predator access

Caribou are brilliantly designed to survive the cold and snowy conditions that drive competition and predators to lower elevations. Trails packed by skiers and snowshoers can lead wolves into these otherwise inaccessible areas.


What are we doing to help this species?


Habitat protection

From November to the end of February, caribou ranges are closed to prevent people from creating packed trails that could give wolves access to important winter caribou habitat.

Protection from human disturbance
  • Dogs are not allowed in caribou habitat
  • In spring, speed limits on highways are reduced to 70km/h in areas where caribou may cross the road
  • Helicopters, airplanes, and drones must follow guidelines that keep them away from wildlife
Monitoring

Parks Canada has an ongoing caribou monitoring program that collects information about caribou, deer, elk, and wolves in a variety of ways including aerial surveys, remote cameras, radio-collars, and scat DNA analysis.

This information helps us understand the relationships between these animals, how they use habitat in the park, and trends in their populations over time.

Research

Addressing small populations
The current conditions in Jasper can now support larger caribou populations. Threats have been mitigated and elk and wolf populations have declined to more sustainable levels. Unfortunately, herds are so small they will never recover on their own.

Parks Canada assessed several ways to add animals to Jasper’s small herds, including maternity penning, translocation, and conservation breeding. Based on detailed study and assessment, including population modelling, Parks Canada is further exploring the feasibility of a conservation breeding program.

Conservation breeding

Parks Canada is working with partners to draft a proposed conservation breeding plan to recover caribou in Jasper. This includes:

  • identifying the costs of a program and the necessary resources
  • assessing scientific evidence and consulting with specialists
  • building support from partners and stakeholders
  • exploring potential sites for the facility
  • developing design requirements for the facility
  • determining source and recipient herds
  • developing animal health and welfare and husbandry requirements
  • developing a consultation plan

If the proposed approach is determined to be feasible, the next step will be Indigenous and public consultations on the subject.

Caribou recovery documents: