Caribou

Wonderful News from Washington Photo
Christmas came early for caribou and fellow denizens of the Arctic when the federal government announced a balanced development plan for a vast tract of land. Blueprints for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska ensure protection for Arctic wetlands and migratory pathways utilized by birds and mammals, caribou among them. Though adaptable, America’s reindeer have suffered declines through the years, in part due to changes to their habitat caused by forestry and energy development. WCS has been actively surveying herds, assessing development impacts, and relaying our findings to government agencies. The government’s newly minted plan will support both conservation interests and responsible energy policies.
© Susan Morse
Caribou Photo
WCS is working to save the great caribou herds of the Far North by helping to formulate conservation policies and programs that would protect the animal’s migratory pathways and calving grounds.
©Steve Zack

Caribou occur across most of northern Canada and Alaska in boreal and arctic landscapes. Caribou have declined in their distribution and abundance due to impacts on their habitat from forestry, oil and gas/mining development (and accompanying roads), wolf predation, and over-harvesting.

This unique member of the deer family can survive in a variety of harsh northern ecosystems, including tundra, boreal forests, mountains, and polar deserts. Its diet consists of a variety of plants and in winter, it eats mainly lichens. Caribou are also an important food source for northern peoples as well as for wolves, wolverines, foxes, and ravens.

Some caribou live in forests, some in mountains, some migrate each year between the sparse forests and tundra of the far north, and others remain on the tundra all year round. Boreal forest caribou is the largest and most sedentary of the caribou forms. It is found throughout much of the boreal forests from British Columbia and Yukon Territory to Newfoundland and Labrador. In the mountainous areas of western Canada, caribou move seasonally from their winter range on forested mountains to their summer ranges on high, alpine tundra. Migratory tundra caribou travel hundreds of miles between their spring calving areas on coastal plains to their wintering grounds in boreal forests. Today, the largest caribou herds, found in northern Alaska and Canada, comprise between 50,000 and 500,000 individuals. The future of the species hinges on protection of intact landscapes that can support their huge ranges. In this way, caribou serve as the litmus test for the continued integrity and health of the northern landscapes they inhabit.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameRangifer tarandus
  • Wild caribou and domestic reindeer are the same species.
  • Caribou are the only member of the deer family where both males and females have antlers.
  • Caribou have broad, flat cloven hooves, perfect for walking on snow. They also have hair on the bottom of their feet to provide insulation.
  • Caribou have broad, flat hooves with deep clefts, perfect for walking on snow.
  • Their broad hooves can serve as effective swimming paddles and as shovels, as they dig through hard snow and ice to find winter foods.

Challenges

In spite of their ability to live in a wide variety of environments, caribou are vulnerable to a number of threats, including deforestation, natural resource extraction and accompanying road networks, and climate change. In North America, caribou have lost about one-third of their southern range, and have been officially classified as threatened or endangered by some jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S. The species has disappeared entirely from eastern and Great Lakes states, and most herds in Alberta and southern British Columbia are in decline. Even the large migratory herds in the north are experiencing widespread declines in numbers and reproduction. When industrial developments like logging, mining, and hydro-electric facilities, plus their accompanying road networks encroach on caribou’s wild, remote habitat, the health of the ecosystem weakens and caribou numbers start declining. Boreal forest caribou, which only thrive in intact ecosystems, will only survive if strict limits on the extent of industrial development are imposed.

WCS Responds

WCS is actively working to protect the northern landscapes where caribou range. In northern Ontario, WCS scientists have been surveying populations of caribou and collecting baseline information on the animals’ distribution patterns relative to other large mammals. This type of information can help inform land-use planning decisions. WCS staff have been members of expert panels advising provincial and federal government on numerous aspects of caribou recovery. Caribou was one of three species highlighted in our recommendations to greatly expand Nahanni National Park Reserve in Canada’s Northwest Territories. In Arctic Alaska, home to four giant caribou herds totalling nearly one million individuals, WCS is examining the impacts of oil exploration and extraction on caribou and other wildlife. We are also working to shape conservation policies that would protect the Arctic Ocean coastline where caribou migrate to rear their calves and escape predators.

From the Newsroom

Reindeer Get Good News Just in Time December 21, 2012

Christmas came early for caribou and other denizens of the Arctic when the federal government announced a balanced plan for a huge tract of land in Alaska. Blueprints for the NPR-A ensure protection for wetlands and migratory pathways utilized by birds and mammals, America's reindeer among them. 

Reindeer Are Fading into Holiday MythDecember 25, 2011

Executive director of WCS-Canada Justina Ray discusses how changes to the landscape and climate of the far north affect its iconic caribou herds, and what we can do to safeguard these beloved Yuletide symbols.

Rudolph’s Real-World TroublesDecember 15, 2011

WCS and Canada’s Earth Rangers join forces to protect woodland caribou. WCS conducts scientific research on caribou, which are threatened by development of their home in the far north.

Happy 50th, Arctic RefugeDecember 6, 2010

As the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge celebrates its 50th anniversary, WCS calls for the coastal plain’s permanent protection from energy development.

Striking Balance in the Arctic October 13, 2010

WCS asks the government to fully protect “Special Areas” in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve for caribou and migratory birds.

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