Caribou in Canada

 

Caribou – sometimes called reindeer in Europe – are members of the deer family. They are generally larger than deer but smaller than moose, and they have thick coats that help them live in cold and snowy environments. Their unique hooves help them walk through deep snow and on soft ground. Every fall, their hooves grow sharp edges to let them break through ice in search of food. Unlike other members of the deer family, both male and female caribou can grow antlers.

All caribou belong to a single species despite having different appearances, behaviours, and habitats across their distribution. There are several ways of classifying these differences. Under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), for example, there are three subspecies of caribou that live in Canada: Peary caribou, barren-ground caribou (including the Dolphin and Union population), and woodland caribou (including the boreal and southern mountain populations). Indigenous peoples know caribou by many different names that acknowledge these differences.

Under the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada, six federal, provincial and territorial shared priority species have been identified to date: barren-ground caribou (including the Dolphin and Union population), boreal caribou, greater sage-grouse, Peary caribou, southern mountain caribou, and wood bison. Delivering conservation outcomes for targeted priority species will have significant co-benefits for other species at risk, wildlife in general, and related biodiversity values.

Boreal caribou

Boreal caribou

Appearance and habitat

Adults are generally dark brown, with a creamy white neck, mane, and underbelly.

Boreal caribou
© John A. Nagy

Boreal caribou are found year-round within the boreal forest. They occur in most provinces and territories in Canada, except for Nunavut, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Boreal caribou disperse themselves amongst the forest. They occur in small groups, spreading out across large, continuous areas of mature forests and peatlands. These behaviours, and avoiding younger forest frequented by other prey species that are targeted by predators (e.g. moose and deer), helps boreal caribou avoid predators, such as wolves and bears.

Boreal caribou herds span across nine provinces and territories. The Federal Recovery Strategy for Woodland Caribou (boreal population) identified 51 ranges of boreal caribou in Canada.
Long description

Map shows the geographic distribution of 51 ranges of boreal caribou in Canada. The ranges extend across Canada and occur in nine provinces and territories, including Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Yukon. The 51 ranges vary greatly in size. The boundaries of most ranges connect or overlap with other ranges, however, a small number of the ranges are isolated. The largest ranges are NT1 (44,166,546 ha) in the Northwest Territories, SK1 (18,034,870 ha) and SK2 (10,592,463 ha) in Saskatchewan, ON9 (28,265,143 ha) in Ontario, and QC6 (62,156,186 ha) in Quebec. There is one range in the Northwest Territories that extends into the Yukon, five ranges in British Columbia, twelve ranges in Alberta, two ranges in Saskatchewan, thirteen ranges in Manitoba, nine ranges in Ontario, six ranges in Quebec, and three ranges in Newfoundland and Labrador. In some cases, there are discrepancies between the ranges identified in the 2012 Recovery Strategy and current range boundaries designated by provinces and territories. Range boundaries in the Recovery Strategy may be updated based on new or more refined evidence provided by the provinces and territories.

Boreal caribou have specific habitat needs during and after pregnancy. Pregnant cows travel to isolated areas, such as peatlands, shorelines, and islands in lakes, to give birth. They choose areas with few predators and many nutritious plants, and often return to the same place to give birth each year.

Food and feeding

Boreal caribou eat lichens year-round. In order to forage during winters with deep or crusted snow, boreal caribou require habitat that has arboreal lichens and shallower snow (such as mature coniferous stands with closed canopies and upland or hilly areas exposed to wind), where it is easier to dig for ground lichens. In the summer, they also feed on grasses, leaves, mushrooms and berries, among other plants.

Importance of boreal caribou

Boreal caribou are an important part of the boreal forest ecosystem, which is home to a wide range of plants and animals. Boreal caribou tend to avoid disturbed areas, and thus their movement pattern can help us understand more about the overall health of the boreal forest. Maintaining the habitat required for healthy populations of boreal caribou on the landscape can also help to conserve other boreal species, including migratory birds.

Boreal caribou play an important role in the culture and history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. They play an integral role in the maintenance of culture and traditions, such as hunting, serving as an important source of food and other activities that are part of Indigenous peoples’ culture and spiritual relationship with the land.

Status and threats

Status

Boreal caribou were listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act in 2003. The listing status was re-examined and confirmed in 2014. Threatened species have declining populations across their range and are at risk of becoming endangered, extirpated or extinct if nothing is done to protect them. Some provinces and territories have also listed boreal caribou as a species at risk under their own laws.

Threats

Over recent years, boreal caribou populations across Canada have declined significantly. This is due to increased predation which is linked to human-caused habitat disturbance. Industrial, commercial, and recreational land uses including forestry, roads and other linear features, combined with natural disturbances such as forest fires and insect outbreaks, have caused high levels of habitat disturbance in many areas. These disturbances can entirely remove habitat, or change it so that it is less suitable for caribou, and can also prevent caribou from accessing important habitat areas, such as for calving or feeding.

caribou crossing highway
© John A. Nagy

Boreal caribou often avoid areas burned by forest fires. Sometimes the burned areas are avoided for decades. Although fires can often occur naturally, this may mean that there are fewer alternative areas for boreal caribou to move when the area they inhabit is disturbed, especially when considering any additional human-caused disturbance within their range.

Forest fires and human-caused disturbance can result in younger stands of trees within the boreal forest. These younger trees attract animals such as moose and deer. Predators, such as bears and wolves follow these prey animals into the habitat. This increases the chance of encounters between predators and caribou. Moose and deer also carry diseases that can threaten boreal caribou populations.

Disturbed habitats can also make it easier for predators to travel quickly through the area, while making it more difficult for caribou to escape, since caribou cannot travel quickly through deep (unpacked) snow. These factors can also increase the chance of a predator encountering a caribou. Furthermore, caribou need large patches of mature and old forests to live in. Older forests have fewer moose, elk, and deer in them, so they attract fewer predators such as wolves and cougars than do younger forests. These older forests allow caribou to separate themselves spatially from their predators.

In some areas of the country, illegal or unregulated hunting is also a threat to boreal caribou. The building of roads in the boreal forest can mean that hunting can take place in areas that had previously been difficult to access. Improvements in hunting technology (such as high powered rifles, GPS navigation, snowmobiles and helicopters) have also made it easier to hunt caribou.

The long-term effects of climate change on boreal caribou populations are not well known, but an increase in severe weather conditions may affect habitat and access to food. Increasing temperatures could mean more wildfires, and could change southern parts of the boreal forest to habitat that is no longer suitable for boreal caribou. Warming could also contribute to poor health in boreal caribou if insect or disease outbreaks are more numerous. In general, the effects of climate change are likely to contribute to the many other factors already affecting boreal caribou and their habitat.

Other threats to boreal caribou include noise and light disturbance, vehicle collisions, and pollution.

What we are doing

Boreal caribou are a priority species under the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada. We are working in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous peoples, communities, and stakeholders, to address the factors leading to the decline of this species.

Recovery Strategy

The Federal Recovery Strategy for Woodland Caribou (boreal population) was published in 2012. It identified the recovery goal to achieve self-sustaining populations in all ranges in Canada, to the extent possible. Because of the large area of the species’ habitat across Canada, recovery of boreal caribou will require different actions in different areas and for different local populations. The Federal Recovery Strategy outlines some of the actions required to conserve or recover the species across the country, including range plans. Range plans, typically prepared by provinces and territories, help guide the protection and recovery of boreal caribou habitat in each range, and provide detailed information on the specific actions that need to be implemented to achieve the recovery goal. It also identifies the need to conserve and protect at least 65% of their habitat in each range, except for the Boreal Shield (SK1) range, where 40% habitat has been identified in an Amended Recovery Strategy published in 2020.

In October 2017, we published a Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation for Boreal Caribou for the period of 2012-2017, which outlined the progress we made toward implementing the Recovery Strategy since 2012.

Federal Action Plan for boreal caribou

The Federal Action Plan for boreal caribou published in February 2018, outlines what the federal government is doing to recover boreal caribou:

Protection of boreal caribou and its habitat

Protection of boreal caribou habitat from destruction is crucial to ensure that caribou have enough habitat to allow their populations to grow.

On June 26, 2019, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change published an Order to protect boreal caribou critical habitat on federally administered land across the country. This Order supports the survival and recovery of boreal caribou on federal lands across Canada by prohibiting the destruction of the species’ habitat. It applies to over 300 properties across Canada, but it amounts to less than 1% of the total habitat of boreal caribou. The majority of the remaining habitat is managed by the provincial and territorial governments, and we are working with them to achieve protection and recovery of this habitat. This work includes the negotiation of conservation agreements and the development of ranges plans, which will outline how these areas will be protected and recovered.

Reporting on progress and steps taken to protect boreal caribou habitat

We are committed to reporting on the actions taken to protect boreal caribou habitat every six months until the habitat is protected. So far, four reports have been published since April 2018. The reports note that progress has been made but further work is needed, including increased  collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous peoples and stakeholders.

Creation of a National Boreal Caribou Knowledge Consortium

Having reliable information is key for making decisions that will best inform caribou protection  and recovery. In June 2018, we launched the National Boreal Caribou Knowledge Consortium (NBCKC). It brings together federal, provincial and territorial governments, Wildlife Management Boards, Indigenous organizations, environmental non-governmental organizations and industry representatives to share lessons learned, pool resources, answer outstanding questions and guide conservation and recovery actions.

Conducting research

Environment and Climate Change Canada and Natural Resources Canada scientists, along with their partners, are contributing to understanding issues such as:

  • the effects of disturbing boreal caribou and their habitat (including both effects of natural disturbances such as fire and human disturbances such as construction of roads or industrial activities)
  • the impact of a changing climate on caribou and their habitat
  • updating maps that illustrate disturbance to habitat over time
  • tools and practices to successfully restore habitat

Stewardship and conservation programs

Over the past several years, we have invested in solutions to support the goal to recover boreal caribou in Canada. We have been actively working with provincial, territorial and Indigenous governments, organizations, and communities to negotiate conservation agreements. We have negotiated six final agreements with Alberta, Cold Lake First Nations, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, and Yukon Territory (+Gwich’in Tribal Council and First Nation Nacho Nyak Dun).

We have also negotiated an agreement for the conservation of boreal caribou with Quebec, under the Cooperation Agreement for the Protection and Recovery of Species at Risk in Québec.

These conservation agreements outline commitments to help conserve boreal caribou, such as:

  • range planning
  • habitat protection
  • habitat management
  • habitat restoration
  • habitat monitoring
  • regional access management
  • population monitoring
  • population management

With funding from the Canada Nature Fund, we have supported several Indigenous- and stakeholder-led on-the-ground initiatives across the distribution of boreal caribou habitat. These projects include actions to advance boreal caribou conservation, described in the sections below. Several of these projects represent multi-year commitments under the Canada Nature Fund until 2023.

We have  also supported projects through the Habitat Stewardship Fund headed by provincial and territorial governments, as well as projects incorporating Indigenous Knowledge through the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk, to enhance boreal caribou conservation in Canada.

Collaboration

There has been an increase in actions to support boreal caribou recovery across the country by many parties including provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous governments, organizations, communities and stakeholders.

Provinces and territories

The management of caribou is primarily the responsibility of provinces and territories. We are committed to working with the provinces and territories to protect and recover boreal caribou. Communication between our governments is facilitated through the Federal-Provincial/Territorial Coordinating Committee on Caribou. This Committee helps governments to coordinate recovery and protection actions, share information and discuss priorities. Provincial, territorial and federal governments also collaborate through the National Boreal Caribou Technical Committee to identify and discuss key technical questions related to the recovery of boreal caribou across Canada.

For example, provinces and territories have made efforts towards developing conservation agreements with Canada, to outline their commitments to support the conservation and protection of the species in their jurisdictions. For more information on the actions taken by provinces and territories to support the recovery of boreal caribou, please visit our section on reporting.

Indigenous peoples

Indigenous governments, communities and organizations are leading and participating in a number of projects to protect and recover boreal caribou habitat. Examples include:

  • creation of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas
  • creation of the Indigenous Knowledge Circle (under the National Boreal Caribou Knowledge Consortium)
  • population monitoring
  • development of plans to manage human disturbance on the habitat, and implementation of habitat restoration measures
  • collaboration with governments and stakeholders
  • predator management

Stakeholders

Various stakeholders are involved in boreal caribou conservation activities across Canada. Examples include:

  • caribou recovery research
  • initiating habitat restoration
  • developing plans to manage human disturbance on the habitat, and implementation of habitat restoration measures
  • development of forest certification standards to support protection of boreal caribou and other species at risk

Next steps

Our next steps for boreal caribou are to continue working collaboratively with all partners and stakeholders to put in place solutions to support the recovery of the species. This includes assisting provinces and territories in implementing their range plans or habitat management strategies to protect the species within their own jurisdiction and investing in on-the-ground actions to support the conservation of boreal caribou.

What you can do

All Canadians can help recover boreal caribou.

Our voices and choices can have a real impact, especially regarding land use, habitat disturbance and climate change.

  • Learn as much as you can about boreal caribou: explore this website and other websites dedicated to boreal caribou
  • Educate yourself on sustainably sourced products that are friendly to boreal caribou habitat
  • Get involved in public consultations on species at risk
  • Reduce your carbon footprint and contribute to the fight against climate change, which can impact boreal caribou habitat
  • Understand the impacts that human disturbance can have on the environment and reduce your footprint when outdoors (e.g., stick to designated trails when hiking, skiing and using all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles)

Key documents and resources

Southern mountain caribou

Southern mountain caribou

Appearance and habitat

Adults are generally dark brown in colour, with a creamy white neck, mane and underbelly. This subspecies of caribou is medium sized.

caribou in the woods
© Lee Harding

The southern mountain caribou are one of the southernmost caribou populations in Canada. They occur in British Columbia and western Alberta. Historically, southern mountain caribou occupied a larger range, extending south into the United States. Southern mountain caribou have distinct patterns of habitat use, migrating between high and low elevations to access food and to separate themselves from predators, insects, and disturbances. Therefore, they need large areas of connected, undisturbed habitat to live in. Like some other caribou ecotypes in Canada, southern mountain caribou are well adapted to life in snowy environments in the mountains. Three groups of southern mountain caribou are recognized, based on environmental and biological differences (Southern, Central, and Northern).

Long description

This is a map of the current distribution of sub-populations and local populations of mountain caribou in Canada. Local populations of the Northern group are located along the north and northwest boundaries of the Southern Mountain National Ecological Area (SMNEA). Local populations of the Central group are located along the northeastern boundary of the SMNEA. Local populations in the Southern group are located in the interior and southern SMNEA.

Food and feeding

Throughout most of the year, southern mountain caribou eat various types of grasses, forbs, fungi, lichens, and some shrubs. In winter, they eat large amounts of lichens in mature forests or, lichen growing on the ground on windswept mountain ridges.

Importance of southern mountain caribou

Southern mountain caribou are an important part of the forest ecosystem, which is home to a wide range of plants and animals. Maintaining the habitat required for healthy populations of southern mountain caribou on the landscape can also help to conserve other forest-dependent species, including migratory birds. Southern mountain caribou, and their habitat, are valued by many Canadians.

Southern mountain caribou play an important role in the culture and history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. They play an integral role in the maintenance of culture and traditions, such as serving as an important food source, and other activities that are part of Indigenous peoples’ culture and spiritual relationship with the land.  

Status and Threats

Status

Woodland Caribou, southern mountain population (informally referred to as southern mountain caribou) were listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act in 2003. Threatened species have declining populations across their range and are at risk of becoming endangered, extirpated, or extinct if nothing is done to protect them.

In 2011, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada defined ‘designatable units’ for caribou across Canada using multiple criteria to organize caribou populations. This included a restructuring of Woodland Caribou, southern mountain population. In 2014, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada assessed three designatable units which collectively include all the subpopulations included in Woodland Caribou, southern mountain population. The Committee’s assessment was as follows:

  • Caribou (Northern Mountain population) (DU7) - Special Concern
  • Caribou (Central Mountain population) (DU8) - Endangered
  • Caribou (Southern Mountain population) (DU9) - Endangered

The Committee’s status report and assessment, which addresses these three designatable units together, was sent to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change in October, 2014, and the Minister issued a response statement for each of the three designatable units in January 2015 indicating that consultations would occur on the potential to amend the legal list of species under the Species at Risk Act.

Threats

Over recent years, southern mountain caribou populations have declined significantly. This is due to increased predation, which is linked to human-caused habitat disturbance. Industrial, commercial, and recreational land uses including forestry, roads and other linear features, combined with natural disturbances, such as forest fires and insect outbreaks, have caused high levels of habitat disturbance in many areas.

Southern mountain caribou herds with highly disturbed habitats and more young forests within their ranges have lower survival rates. With more young forest on the landscape, the densities of predators and their prey have increased. This increase in predators also causes more predation on caribou. Caribou need large patches of mature and old forests to live in. Older forests have fewer moose, elk, and deer in them, so they attract fewer predators such as wolves and cougars than do younger forests. These older forests allow caribou to separate themselves spatially from their predators.  

The currently available evidence does not support the characterization of climate change as a primary driver of southern mountain caribou declines. However, climate change, forest insects, and wildfire also contribute to changes in habitat quality and distribution. The effects of these changes contribute to the cumulative effects of direct anthropogenic activities on southern mountain caribou critical habitat. Avalanches, parasites, diseases and other natural causes of mortality can also negatively affect southern mountain caribou populations.

In 2018, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change determined that southern mountain caribou are facing imminent threats to their recovery.

What we are doing

Southern mountain caribou are a priority species under the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada. We are working in collaboration with the Governments of British Columbia and Alberta, Indigenous peoples, communities, and stakeholders, to address the factors leading to the decline of this species.

Recovery Strategy

The Federal Recovery Strategy for Woodland Caribou (southern mountain population) was published in 2014. It sets the strategic direction for recovery and identifies critical habitat for the species. Importantly, it includes strategies that are needed to protect critical habitat and directly manage caribou populations to recover southern mountain caribou. These include habitat protection and management, management of predators and other prey species, monitoring, and planning. For example, starting in 2014, in British Columbia, there were two active maternity pens, which were used to temporarily keep mothers and calves safe from predators. British Columbia has also used other recovery actions including the translocation of caribou, supplemental feeding, and management of moose populations. Both British Columbia and Alberta have expanded their predator control programs in recent years, and are implementing habitat restoration projects. In national parks, the Parks Canada Agency has taken a number of actions to address threats to southern mountain caribou and their habitat. These include restricting recreational activities such as snowmobiling and backcountry skiing, managing wildfires, and changing how elk and other prey species are managed to reduce wolf density.

Action Plans

The Parks Canada Agency published multi-species action plans for the Banff, Jasper, Glacier, and Mount Revelstoke national parks in 2017, each of which include southern mountain caribou.

Protection of southern mountain caribou critical habitat

Critical habitat for the southern mountain caribou has been legally protected in Banff, Jasper, Glacier, and Mount Revelstoke National Parks since late 2014. The Governments of British Columbia and Alberta use a variety of laws, regulations, and voluntary guidelines to manage industrial, commercial, and recreational activities occurring within southern mountain caribou habitat. Activities in some areas are more legally restricted than in others. In 2017, Environment and Climate Change Canada and British Columbia agencies published a Protection Study for the Central Group of Southern Mountain Caribou which provides more details.

Stewardship and conservation programs

We have been actively working with the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, Indigenous governments, organizations, and communities, and stakeholders to negotiate conservation agreements for southern mountain caribou. We have negotiated a final conservation agreement with Alberta, a final bilateral conservation agreement with British Columbia, and a final Intergovernmental Partnership Agreement with British Columbia, Saulteau First Nations, and West Moberly First Nations:

 

These conservation agreements outline commitments to help conserve southern mountain caribou, such as:

  • range planning
  • habitat protection
  • habitat management
  • habitat restoration
  • maternity penning
  • population management

We have also negotiated funding contribution agreements with Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations to plan and implement caribou recovery measures such as, but not limited to, habitat restoration, maternal penning, and Indigenous knowledge collection.

We have supported projects through the Habitat Stewardship Fund headed by provincial and territorial governments, as well as projects incorporating Indigenous Knowledge through the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk, to enhance southern mountain caribou conservation in Canada.

We issue permits under the Species at Risk Act to domestic and international organizations and governments for research, monitoring, data collection, and reintroduction to support the recovery of wild populations, and to promote public education.

See Permits as per section 74 of SARA related on southern mountain caribou, for more information.

Next steps

Our next step for southern mountain caribou is to continue collaborating with all partners and communities to put in action solutions that support the recovery of the species.

Key documents and resources

Peary caribou

Peary caribou

Appearance and habitat

Peary caribou are the smallest of all caribou subspecies. Their small size helps them to conserve heat in their arctic environment. In winter, Peary caribou are mostly white except for their back, which may be brown. Their summer coat is slate-gray in colour, while their legs and underparts remain white. These caribou also have a grey stripe down the front of the legs.

Peary caribou
© Government of Nunavut; photo: Morgan Anderson

Peary caribou are native to northern Canada and occur in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Peary caribou are found farther north than other subspecies of caribou in Canada in the Arctic. Their habitat consists of treeless Arctic tundra. In this region, the summers are shorter and cooler than in the southern parts of Canada, and the winters are long and cold. During winter, Peary caribou generally have long-distance and regular migrations, using sea ice to move between islands.

COSEWIC. 2015. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Peary Caribou Rangifer tarandus pearyi in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. xii + 92 pp. (Species at Risk Public Registry).
Long description

Map outlining the range of each of the four Peary caribou subpopulations (Banks-Victoria; Prince of Wales-Somerset-Boothia; Western Queen Elizabeth Islands; and Eastern Queen Elizabeth Islands). Areas of additional sightings of Peary caribou outside the core range for the Banks-Victoria and Prince of Wales-Somerset-Boothia subpopulations are also indicated.

Food and feeding

During summer, Peary caribou eat willow, flowers, herbs, grasses and sedges. During winter, they feed on legumes and various plants. Unlike other subspecies of caribou in Canada, Peary caribou do not incorporate much lichen into their diet, as it is not readily available in the Arctic.

Importance of Peary caribou

Peary caribou are integral to Inuit and Inuvialuit culture and economy. As the only source of caribou meat across several arctic communities, Peary caribou have an important economic value locally, as well as traditional and cultural importance represented in traditional crafts marketed across Canada. Collaboration with Indigenous peoples is essential to help ensure prosperity of these Indigenous peoples and their community, maintain an important food supply and allow for the ongoing practice of culture.

Peary caribou are an important part of Arctic biodiversity and play an increasingly important role in studies on ecosystem health and effects of climate change.

Status and Threats

Status

Peary caribou were listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act in 2011. Endangered species face an imminent threat to extinction.

Threats

The biggest threat to Peary caribou is changing environmental conditions as a result of climate change. This includes increased intensity and frequency of severe weather events. Severe weather events affect Peary caribou’s ability to forage, and thinning sea ice due to warmer winters affects their migration and movement patterns. Warming climate conditions could make the habitat more accessible for shipping, contributing to increased icebreaker supported shipping, bacteria, parasites and viruses in their environment. Energy production and mining are also threats because they lead to disturbance and fragmentation of Peary caribou habitat.

What are we doing

Peary caribou are a priority species under the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada. To ensure the recovery of Peary caribou, we are working in collaboration with territorial governments, Indigenous peoples, communities, and stakeholders, on a variety of measures and initiatives to address the factors leading to the decline of this species.

Recovery Strategy

In 2014, the Government of Northwest Territories listed Peary caribou as Threatened under the NWT Species at Risk Act. Once a species is legally listed in Northwest Territories under the Northwest Territories Species at Risk Act, the territorial government must develop a Recovery Strategy. Since we also need to develop a recovery document for this species, we are working with Northwest Territories and partners including the government of Nunavut, Wildlife Management Boards, and Inuvialuit and Inuit partners to complete a National Recovery Strategy.

Stewardship and conservation programs

Caribou populations are monitored in Aulavik National Park and surrounding areas using aerial surveys, enabled by a special permit obtained under the Species at Risk Act in 2014. Population trends are documented every five years in Northwest Territories and Nunavut. The Government of Nunavut also conducts research projects on Peary caribou with funding support from the Habitat Stewardship Program.

See Permits as per section 74 of the Species at Risk Act related to Peary Caribou, for more information.

Key documents and resources

Barren-ground caribou

Barren-ground caribou

While six priority species were named under the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada, the Dolphin and Union subpopulation of barren-ground caribou is considered a separate designatable unit (DU) by COSEWIC as they possess unique life-history traits, threats, and management requirements. As such, facts on Dolphin and Union caribou (DU2) are provided separately from barren-ground caribou (DU3) within this page when they differ.

Appearance and habitat

Barren-ground caribou

Barren-ground caribou are dark brown in colour, especially in winter, with a creamy white neck, mane and underbelly. They are generally smaller and lighter in colour than boreal caribou.

Barren-ground caribou
© Anne Gunn

Barren-ground caribou are found in Arctic and sub-Arctic environments. They occur in the Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Historically, they used to occur in Alberta.

Barren-ground caribou require large ranges, particularly because of frequent shifts in their Arctic and sub-Arctic environments, such as changes in snow cover, plant growth, as well as predation.

They are known for their long-distance, yearly migrations and their tendency to gather in large groups at common calving locations in the spring. Barren-ground caribou naturally migrate to shallow snow covered regions during the winter. Over the summer, they often seek cool, damp and windy habitats that provide high-quality forage and low exposure to biting insects.

Dolphin and Union caribou

While they overlap in range with both Peary caribou and barren-ground caribou, Dolphin and Union caribou are morphologically distinct from both populations. Smaller than barren-ground caribou and larger than Peary caribou, Dolphin and Union caribou have a primarily white coat and dark brown back. However, they are slightly darker than Peary caribou with a narrow grey band along the front of the legs. The antler velvet is grey (similar to Peary caribou), which differs from the dark brown colouring of barren-ground caribou.

© Kim Poole, Aurora Wildlife Research

Dolphin and Union caribou are endemic to Canada, and are found wholly in arctic environments in both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Like barren-ground caribou, the population undergoes seasonal migrations between their summer and wintering grounds. However, their migration takes places entirely over sea ice; crossing between the mainland, where they winter, and Victoria Island, where they calve and spend their summers. Historically, large numbers of these caribou crossed over the Dolphin and Union Strait, after which the population is named.

Individuals on Victoria Island along the southern coast in fall and early winter to wait for the sea ice to be thick enough to cross. While migration routes have changed over the long term, year-to-year they appear to be largely consistent; crossings are typically in a few locations, possibly to minimize distances. Pre-calving migration is gregarious, with females travelling in groups of dozens of individuals.

Given their reliance on it for migration, sea ice is an important habitat component for Dolphin and Union caribou, typically requiring ice that is 10-30 cm thick for crossing. Like barren-ground caribou, they also select habitat that maximizes high-quality plants to forage on, while minimizing their exposure to biting insects.

Long description

Map of Dolphin and Union (DU2) and barren-ground caribou (DU3) distribution in Canada. Dolphin and Union caribou primarily inhabit Victoria Island during the warmer months for calving, and make seasonal migrations to their wintering grounds on the mainland over sea ice. Historically, the subpopulation crossed over the Dolphin and Union Strait, after which they are named. Barren-ground caribou range from northeastern Alaska, to western Nunavut (East to West) and northeastern Nunavut to northern Manitoba (North to South).

Food and feeding

Barren-ground caribou

In the summer, barren-ground caribou eat grasses, sedges, and shrubs. During winter, they forage for lichen.

Dolphin and Union caribou

The preferred food source for Dolphin and Union caribou is the wildflower Moss Campion. Generally, their diet consists of protein-rich plants and wildflowers.

Importance of barren-ground caribou and Dolphin and Union caribou

Barren-ground caribou and Dolphin and Union caribou hold significant cultural, economic, and spiritual importance to Indigenous peoples. This is shown in various archaeological findings dating back as far as 15,000 years ago. They are a keystone species (e.g., a species that has a large effect on its environment relative to its abundance), and an important part of northern ecosystems as they provide food and cycle nutrients.

Status and Threats

Status

Barren-ground caribou

Barren-ground caribou are not currently listed under the Species at Risk Act. The population has fallen from over two million in the 1990’s to about 800,000 in 2015. While local Indigenous Knowledge and scientific studies suggest that barren-ground caribou go through natural changes in population size, there are no signs of recovery at this time. Due to the large decline in numbers, COSEWIC assessed the population’s status as threatened in 2016.

Dolphin and Union caribou

Dolphin and Union caribou are currently listed as special concern under the Species at Risk Act. The population has rapidly declined from approximately 18,400 individuals in 2015 to roughly 4,100 individuals in 2018. Given the accelerated declines of the population, and the multiple threats it faces, COSEWIC assessed the population as endangered in 2017.

Threats

Barren-ground caribou

Climate change and changing weather patterns can greatly affect barren-ground caribou, for example by changing food availability, as well as increasing the rates of predation, parasites and diseases. Forest fires and human disturbance from industrial development have also reduced their habitat. Barren-ground caribou are also threatened by high levels of hunting in some locations.

Dolphin and Union caribou

Similar to barren-ground caribou, Dolphin and Union caribou are threatened by the many effects of climate change. However, the sea-ice habitat that is required by the population for their migrations between Victoria Island and the mainland are also threatened by warming temperatures, and an increase in winter ship traffic.

What we are doing

Barren-ground caribou (including the Dolphin and Union population) are a priority species under the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada. We are working with provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous peoples, communities and stakeholders on a variety of measures and initiatives to ensure the recovery of species.

Recovery Documents

Barren-ground caribou

The population does not yet have a federal Recovery Strategy, as it is not listed under the Species at Risk Act. One will be developed in collaboration with our partners in the arctic (including Wildlife Management Boards, communities, and others) should the population be listed.

Dolphin and Union caribou

A national Management Plan for the population was developed jointly between the governments of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and the federal government, and was published in 2018. The plan includes steps to fill knowledge gaps using Inuit Qauijimajatuqangit and Indigenous Knowledge, community monitoring and scientific methods; minimize habitat disturbance and preserve sea ice; and ensure population-level management so future generations can benefit from sustainable harvesting opportunities.

Listing consultations

Barren-ground caribou

We are currently conducting consultations on the listing of barren-ground caribou under the Species at Risk Act. In Nunavut, the consultation process was developed jointly with the Government of Nunavut and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.

Dolphin and Union caribou

Community consultations on the proposed change in status of Dolphin and Union caribou as endangered under the Species at Risk Act began in 2019 and are still underway.

Stewardship and conservation programs

Barren-ground caribou

Numerous projects are underway to assist in the conservation and stewardship of barren-ground caribou in Canada. For example, Canada has funded several initiatives through the Quick Start and Challenge programs of the Canada Nature Fund to territorial governments, Indigenous peoples, and stakeholders to expand the number of protected areas within the range of the barren-ground caribou. We have also recently supported projects through the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk (AFSAR) the Indigenous Guardians Pilot Program, and other funding programs to enable and coordinate Indigenous monitoring and stewardship of barren-ground caribou herds and their habitat in the arctic.

Dolphin and Union Caribou

Canada has provided funding through the AFSAR program to help implement the Management Plan for Dolphin and Union caribou.

As part of the Proactive Vessel Management initiative, Transport Canada and the Ekaluktutiak Hunters and Trappers Organization, in collaboration with other northern partners, are working to address the conservation and safety issues posed by icebreaking traffic to Dolphin and Union caribou and local hunters in the Kitikmeot region in Nunavut.

Monitoring, population management and research

Barren-ground caribou

The Government of Nunavut has been conducting assessments of the abundance, distribution, and movements of barren-ground caribou in the northeast mainland of Nunavut with funding support from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Dolphin and Union Caribou

We have funded projects to facilitate the inclusion of Inuit and Inuvialuit Traditional Knowledge in the identification of important habitat required by Dolphin and Union caribou.

Key documents and resources

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: