Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) COSEWIC assessment and status report 2014: chapter 3
Table showing the frequency distribution of population trends among caribou subpopulations in the Northern Mountain, Central Mountain, and Southern Mountain designatable units. Numbers of subpopulations that have increasing, stable, decreasing, or unknown population trends or are extirpated are given. Data are arranged in two columns under each designatable unit to show long-term (three-generation) trend and recent trend as reported by jurisdictions.
|Trend in numbers||Northern Mountain (DU7)
|Northern Mountain (DU7)
|Central Mountain (DU8)
|Central Mountain (DU8)
|Southern Mountain (DU9)
|Southern Mountain (DU9)
Average annual calf recruitment for 6 of 10 subpopulations with 3 or more years of late winter calf recruitment data is less than the 15% rate recommended by Bergerud (1996) to achieve population stability (Table 3). For the Itcha-Ilgachuz subpopulation, although the average recruitment rate is 18%, most data are from before 2001 when numbers were increasing; the most recent recruitment estimate for that subpopulation is 8% (Davis 2013). Calf recruitment based on hunter observations collected in the fall from 1991-2010 averaged 16% (range: 11-21%) for the Bonnet Plume subpopulation and 27% (range: 21-34%) for the Redstone subpopulation (Larter 2012). Because some mortality likely occurs over winter, the Bonnet Plume subpopulation may also have late winter calf recruitment of less than 15%.
Table summarizing data on late winter calf recruitment for subpopulations of caribou within the Northern Mountain designatable unit. Information includes subpopulation name, recruitment rate (percentage of calves; average and range), range of years in sample period, and number of years sampled.
|Subpopulation||Recruitment rate (% calves))
|Recruitment rate (% calves)
|Swan Lake||17||14-23||2006-2008||3||BC MFLNRO unpublished data|
|Little Rancheria||15||10-19||1997-2001||5||BC MFLNRO unpublished data|
|Horseranch||12||7-17||1997-2001||5||BC MFLNRO unpublished data|
|Muskwa||14||12-16||2001-2003||3||Tripp et al. 2006|
|Chase||15||12-18||1993-2010||8||McNay et al. 2010|
|Wolverine||14||7-24||1989-2010||11||McNay et al. 2010|
|Tweedsmuir||11||6-19||1986-2009||15||Cichowski and MacLean 2005
|19||Young and Freeman 2001
BC Ministry of Environment unpublished data
|Rainbow||10||3-15||1996-2001||6||Young and Freeman 2001|
All 5 subpopulations in west-central BC (Telkwa, Tweedsmuir, Itcha-Ilgachuz, Rainbows, Charlotte Alplands) are currently declining. The west-central BC subpopulations are isolated from other subpopulations in this DU and in neighbouring DUs by the interior plateau. Although the current estimate of 1220 mature individuals in Itcha-Ilgachuz subpopulation (the largest subpopulation in west-central BC) is higher than the 1987 estimate of 730, the population increased to a peak of 2161 mature individuals in 2003 then underwent a 44% decline between 2003 and 2012 (Table 1, Appendix 2). The Telkwa subpopulation in west-central BC was augmented with 32 caribou from the Chase subpopulation from 1997 to 1999. That subpopulation increased following the transplants to a peak of 66 mature individuals in 2006 before declining to the current estimate of 19. From 1984 to 1991, 52 caribou from the Itcha-Ilgachuz subpopulation were transplanted to an unoccupied part of the Charlotte Alplands range (Young et al. 2001). That subpopulation appeared to remain stable until about 1999 but then declined. Monitoring programs for both the Telkwa and Charlotte Alplands subpopulations following translocations ended around the time of their post-translocation population peaks, so it is unknown why they declined. The Telkwa subpopulation was at its highest recorded level in the mid-1960s when 271 caribou (222 mature individuals) were counted in the Telkwa range in March 1965 (Theberge and Oosenbrug 1977). ATK attributes the decline of the Telkwa subpopulation in the 1960s and 1970s to railroad construction and disturbance, mining exploration, and helicopter hunting (Stronen 2000).
The estimated number of mature individuals in the former Northern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou was 43,950 in 2002 (COSEWIC 2002). Of the 45 current subpopulations making up the Northern Mountain DU, 36 subpopulations fell within the former Northern Mountain population and are currently estimated at 40,470 – 44,779 (Table 1). This compared to the 43,950 which was estimated for these individuals in 2002. Although there is considerable uncertainty around both estimates, this suggests an overall stable situation. On the other hand, the 9 subpopulations at the southern part of the DU, all of which belong to the former Southern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou (Environment Canada 2014) have experienced an overall decline of 27%, from 4,075 to 2,973 mature individuals. Five subpopulations have decreased by over 20%, one has increased, and two have remained relatively stable (Table 1).
Population viability analyses (PVAs) were conducted for two of the declining subpopulations: Itcha-Ilgachuz and Tweedsmuir-Entiako (Hatter and Young 2004, Cichowski and MacLean 2005, Griffiths 2011). The purpose of the PVA for the former was to evaluate how translocations out of the subpopulation and hunting would affect caribou numbers, and the subpopulation was predicted to continue to increase with or without translocations and hunting (Hatter and Young 2004). More recently, Griffiths (2011) used 3 models for the same subpopulation. A continued growth and dispersal model predicted the subpopulation to increase with or without translocation, whereas a predation model predicted the subpopulation to decrease to about 1,000 caribou within 10 years (by 2020) with or without removals. The Tweedsmuir-Entiako PVA predicted that in 20 years the subpopulation would decline by 50% using bull survival data from the subpopulation (based on a low sample size), or decline by 70% assuming a more typical bull mortality rate (Cichowski and MacLean 2005).
Central Mountain DU (8)
Sampling Effort and Methods
For those subpopulations that use alpine or subalpine habitat in late winter, aerial surveys are conducted in alpine and subalpine parkland habitat and the proportion of radio-collared caribou is used to correct for the total number of animals in the survey area but not seen, to provide a survey estimate, and to correct for animals not present in the survey area to provide a population estimate (Seip and Jones 2013). Survey estimates are used to track population trends over time because they are based on a standard survey area. For the Tonquin, Maligne, and Brazeau subpopulations, surveys are conducted during fall when caribou are in alpine habitat. Recently, techniques using DNA analyses of fecal pellets (Hettinga 2010) have also been used to estimate the size of the Tonquin, Maligne and Brazeau subpopulations (L. Neufeld, pers. comm. 2013). No formal censuses have been conducted for the Scott, Narraway, A La Peche, or Redrock-Prairie Creek subpopulations.
In addition to formal surveys, trends in relative abundance for some subpopulations are monitored using mortality rates of radio-collared caribou and recruitment rates of all caribou seen during searches for radio-collared caribou during late winter (ASRD&ACA 2010, Seip and Jones 2013). The number of caribou counted during recruitment surveys has also sometimes been used as a minimum count when assessing declines (Seip and Jones 2013). Mortality rates of radio-collared caribou and late winter calf recruitment rates have been tracked every year since 1998/99 for the Redrock-Prairie Creek and A La Peche subpopulations, 2002/03 for the Moberly, Burnt Pine, Kennedy Siding, and Quintette subpopulations, 2003/04 for the Tonquin, Maligne, and Brazeau subpopulations, and 2005/06 for the Narraway subpopulation (ASRD&ACA 2010, Seip and Jones 2013, AESRD unpublished data).
Abundance and Trends
The current estimate for the Central Mountain DU population is 469 mature individuals (Table 4; Appendix 3). All 10 extant subpopulations are estimated to contain fewer than 250 mature individuals, with 4 among them fewer than 50 (Tables 2, 4). In addition, the Banff subpopulation was confirmed extirpated in 2009 (Hebblewhite et al. 2010b), and the Burnt Pine subpopulation was confirmed extirpated in 2014 (BC Ministry of Environment, unpublished data). The overall decline in the Central Mountain DU population was 64% during the last 27 years (3 generations) and 62% during the last 18 years (2 generations; Table 4). All subpopulations have experienced long-term declines of at least 29% and are currently known to be in continuing decline, except for the Scott subpopulation where the trend is unknown (Table 2). The decrease in numbers seen during surveys is supported by consistently high adult mortality and low calf recruitment (Seip and Jones 2013, ASRD&ACA 2010).
Table summarizing percentage change in number of mature caribou within the past three generations (27 years) and two generations (18 years) for subpopulations in the Central Mountain designatable unit.
|Subpopulation||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote1.1table 4||Footnote3table 4
|Burnt PineFootnote2.1table 4||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-100||-100||0||↓|
|Redrock- Prairie Creek||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-71||-71||106||↓|
|A La Peche||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-29||-29||75||↓|
|Jasper (3 subpops)Footnote5table 4||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-72||-54||41||↓|
First Nations community members in west-central Alberta feel that the decline of caribou and their habitat is due to increased industrial activity, increased recreation including all terrain vehicle (ATV) use, and past mortality due to vehicle collisions on Highway 40 (West Central Alberta Caribou Landscape Planning Team 2008). The West Moberly First Nation attributes the decline and eventual loss of the Burnt Pine subpopulation to cumulative impacts including forest harvesting (habitat loss alteration, and habitat fragmentation and functional habitat loss), industrial development, and the construction of the WAC Bennett Dam on the Peace River, which created and flooded the Williston Reservoir (West Moberly First Nations v. British Columbia 2011).
All 12 subpopulations in the new Central Mountain DU considered in this report belonged to the former Southern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou (Environment Canada 2014). The corresponding subpopulations were estimated at 1,293 mature individuals in 2002 (COSEWIC 2002), all subpopulations have declined, and two have been extirpated. Only one (Banff) numbered fewer than 50 individuals at the time of this last assessment.
DeCesare et al. (2011) conducted PVAs to assess the effects of translocations on the 3 subpopulations in Jasper Park, and the extirpated Banff subpopulation. The Brazeau and Maligne subpopulations are likely to become extirpated within 20 years without translocation, and translocation may reduce the short-term risk of extinction, but may not be sufficient to reverse the declines unless vital rates are improved naturally or through additional conservation actions (DeCesare et al. 2011). The Tonquin subpopulation appeared viable over the next 20 years (based on a quasi-extinction threshold of 8 females) even without translocation.
Based on observed calf recruitment and adult female mortality rates, Smith (2004) predicted that the Redrock-Prairie Creek subpopulation would decline by 20% and the A La Peche subpopulation would increase over the next 20 years. He also predicted that increasing the density of roads or cutblocks would exacerbate the decline of the Redrock-Prairie Creek subpopulation and that increasing cutblock density to 7.2 ha/km2 or increasing road density by 120 m/km2 would result in a ≥20% decline for the A La Peche subpopulation over the next 20 years. Wilson (2012) predicted that a status quo management scenario would result in the extirpation of the Burnt Pine, Moberly, and Kennedy Siding subpopulations and declines of >20% for the Narraway and Quintette subpopulations over the next 20 years.
Southern Mountain DU (9)
Sampling Effort and Methods
In the Southern Mountain DU, aerial surveys conducted shortly after a fresh snowfall in late winter provides the best time to obtain unbiased estimates of population size and structure (Seip 1990). Subalpine areas are searched for caribou, and if tracks are seen, they are followed until the caribou are found. When present, radio-collars are used to correct for caribou not seen, or not present in the survey area; otherwise, a standardized sightability correction factor based on the proportion of caribou estimated to have been counted during the survey (83%; Seip 1990, Young and Roorda 1999) is applied to the total counted to estimate population size (Resources Inventory Committee 2002). Survey effort has varied among subpopulations. The earliest available surveys are for the Barkerville, Wells Gray (south), and Groundhog subpopulations from the late 1980s (Seip 1990, Hatter 2006, Freeman 2012). The Quesnel Highlands portion of the Wells Gray (north) subpopulation (Seip 1990) and portions of some of the subpopulations in the Revelstoke area (see McLellan et al. 2006) were also censused in the late 1980s, but areas surveyed did not cover whole ranges. During the 1990s, at least 2 surveys were conducted for most subpopulations (Hatter 2006) and surveys were conducted in most years for the Barkerville, Wells Gray (north), Central Purcells, South Purcells, and South Selkirk subpopulations (Wakkinen 2003, Kinley 2007, Freeman 2012). Since 2002, most subpopulations have been surveyed approximately every second year.
Abundance and Trends
Spalding (2000) and McLellan (2009) both reported observations of >100 individuals in a group including some groups of >1000 individuals from early in the 1900s. Today, the number of caribou in the Southern Mountain DU is estimated at 1395 mature individuals (Table 5; Appendix 4). Of the 15 extant subpopulations, all consist of fewer than 500 mature individuals and only two have more than 250. Nine subpopulations number fewer than 50 mature individuals, and six of those subpopulations contain fewer than 15 animals. Two subpopulations were recently extirpated: the George Mountain subpopulation in 2003 and the Central Purcells in 2005. All subpopulations experienced declines during the last 27 years (3 generations) and 18 years (2 generations), except for the Barkerville subpopulation, which has increased (Table 5). Recent trends indicate that 1 subpopulation is currently increasing, 3 are stable, and 11 are decreasing (Table 2). The overall decline rate of the Southern Mountain population was 45% within the last 27 years, and 40% within the last 18 years. However, these decline estimates likely underestimate the actual decline, as the earlier surveys used for estimating the size of some subpopulations were more recent than the two or three generation timeframe.
Tableau présentant un sommaire du pourcentage de changement du nombre de caribous matures au cours des trois dernières générations (27 ans) et des deux dernières générations (18 ans) dans les sous populations de l'unité désignable des montagnes du Sud. Des remarques sur la gestion de la population y sont présentées aussi.Table summarizing percentage change in number of mature caribou within the past three generations (27 years) and two generations (18 years) for subpopulations in the Southern Mountain designatable unit. Notes on population management are given.
|Subpopulation||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Footnote3.1Table 53.1
||Footnote1.2Table 51.2||Population management|
|South Selkirks||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-62||-60||20||↓||augmented 1988-1998Footnote2.2table 5|
|Purcells South||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-65||-61||22||=||augmented 2012Footnote3.1table 5|
|Purcells CentralFootnote9table 5||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-100||-100||0||X||augmented 2012Footnote 4 table 5|
|Monashee||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-50||-43||4||↓||augmented 1985Footnote5.1table 5|
|Frisby BoulderFootnote11table 5||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-69||-68||12||↓||moose reduction 2003-pres6Footnote6table 5|
|Columbia SouthFootnote11table 5||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-94||-93||6||↓||moose reduction 2003-presFootnote6table 5|
|Columbia NorthFootnote11table 5||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-36||-36||157||=||moose reduction 2003-presFootnote6table 5|
|Wells Gray||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-43||-26||341||↓||wolf sterilization 2001-2012Footnote7table 5|
|Barkerville||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||+94||+90||78||↑||wolf sterilization 2001-2012Footnote7table 5|
|North Cariboo Mtns||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-28||-28||202||↓||-|
|Hart Ranges||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-87||-56||11||↓||moose reduction 2006-presFootnote8table 5|
The South Selkirk subpopulation, shared with Idaho and Washington, received transplants totalling 60 caribou from 1987 to 1990 (Compton et al. 1995) and an additional 43 from 1996 to 1998 (L. de Groot, pers. comm. 2012). Source animals from 1987 to 1990 were from Revelstoke and Itcha-Ilgachuz subpopulations, and from 1996 to 1998 from Wells Gray (north) and North Cariboo Mountains (Zittlau 2004). In March 2012, 19 caribou were transplanted from the Level-Kawdy subpopulation in the Northern Mountain DU to the South and Central Purcell ranges in the Southern Mountain DU (L. de Groot, pers. comm. 2013). Seventeen died within months, and the fate of the remaining two is unknown due to radio-collar malfunction (L. de Groot, pers. comm. 2013).
All 17 subpopulations in the new Southern Mountain DU considered in this report belonged to the former Southern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou (Environment Canada 2014). The corresponding subpopulations were estimated at 1,850 mature individuals in 2002 (COSEWIC 2002), a 27% decline. All but one subpopulation (Barkerville) have declined, two have been extirpated, and five numbered fewer than 50 individuals at the time of the last assessment vs. 9 today.
Wittmer et al. (2010) used stochastic projection models on 10 subpopulations of Southern Mountain DU caribou. All 10 were predicted to decline to extinction within <200 years when models incorporated the declines in adult female survival known to occur with increasing proportions of young forest and declining population densities. All but two had a cumulative probability of extinction of > 20% (24-100%) within 45 years (5 generations). Increases in the amount of young forests resulted in faster extinction rates in all populations. Hatter (2006) conducted PVAs for all extant 15 subpopulations in this DU based on population surveys. Time to quasi-extinction (N<20 animals) was less than 50 years for 10 of 15 subpopulations. The probability of quasi-extinction in 20 years was >20% for 12 of 15 subpopulations and >50% for 13; however, Hatter (2006) cautions that confidence limits indicate a low level of confidence for 5 of the subpopulations that have a high probability of extinction. By contrast, the largest subpopulations--North Caribou and Hart Ranges--were identified in both studies as having zero or low probabilities of extinction in this time period.
Both the Southern Mountain and Central Mountain DUs have experienced pronounced population declines within the last 27 years. The overall decline in the Central Mountain DU population was 64% during the last 27 years (3 generations) and 45% for the Southern Mountain population during the same time period. The only subpopulation in those two DUs that has increased has been the Barkerville subpopulation (Southern), likely benefiting from a recent wolf sterilization and removal program (Roorda and Wright 2012). However, it still consists of fewer than 100 mature individuals (Table 5). Several recognized subpopulations in the 2002 assessment from these DUs have since split into multiple subpopulations as a result of cessation of dispersal within ranges. Less information is available on subpopulation size and trend in the Northern Mountain DU but the two largest subpopulations making up about 24% of the overall population are found in Yukon and NT, while 9 subpopulations located in the southern portion of the DU in west-central and north-central BC have experienced a 27% decline since 2002.
Most ATK is in agreement that caribou subpopulations have seen a steady decrease since the early 1900s with arrival of moose and the increase of wolves in the 1930s. As habitat loss and caribou predation increased, caribou numbers started to decline starting in the 1940s, either as actual population decline or by migration northwards. Prior to the 1900s, caribou were described as blackening a mountainside (Meska or Too-Dinie Mountains). Others have noted that previous caribou territory has now been abandoned (Takla Lake area and Mount Milligan; McKay 1997, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia 2007, McNay et al. 2008).
Rescue effect from natural dispersal is unlikely for the Southern Mountain DU. The nearest subpopulation in the US is the South Selkirk subpopulation, which is shared between BC, Idaho, and Washington, and currently consists of only 28 mature individuals. Even within the Southern Mountain DU, subpopulations are effectively isolated from one other with almost no evidence of movement between them except at the northern extent of the DU (van Oort et al. 2011). The closest DU is the Central Mountain and Northern Mountain DU, but these animals are not only declining in most neighbouring subpopulations but are adapted to living in shallow snow environments and will likely encounter difficulty adjusting to deep snow conditions. The same characteristics that render all three mountain caribou DUs as discrete and significant relative to neighbouring caribou subpopulations (see Designatable Units; COSEWIC 2011) make the prospects for rescue highly unlikely.
There may be some potential for rescue of the Northern Mountain DU from neighbouring Alaska subpopulations. Chisana caribou are found in Alaska and Yukon and have occasionally overlapped with the Nelchina and Mentasta subpopulations in Alaska (T. Hegel, pers. comm. 2013). However, Alaska subpopulations have not been evaluated within the COSEWIC DU framework to evaluate the similarity with Northern Mountain DU subpopulations in Canada. The Central Mountain DU is endemic to Canada, so there are no outside subpopulations available for rescue.
Threats And Limiting Factors
Direct threats facing mountain caribou assessed in this report were organized and evaluated based on the IUCN-CMP (World Conservation Union-Conservation Measures Partnership) unified threats classification system (Master et al. 2009). Threats were defined as the proximate activities or processes that directly negatively affect western mountain caribou. These were assessed separately for each of the three DUs, with results on the impact, scope, severity and timing of each presented in tabular form in Appendix 5 (Southern Mountain Caribou), Appendix 6 (Central Mountain Caribou) and Appendix 7 (Northern Mountain Caribou).
The overall calculated and assigned threat impact is Very High for both Southern and Central Mountain caribou and High for Northern Mountain caribou. Although the large majority of the direct impact is from predation, multiple additional threats are evident. This underscores the cumulative nature of threats, which are not only additive in nature, but also synergistic. When integrated across a seasonal range, many small events from different threat sources can have a large overall impact on a caribou population. These cumulative impacts are not well represented by the threats calculator, which is oriented to identifiable events within discrete threat categories, many of which have low direct impacts by themselves. In addition, multiple subpopulations, particularly in the Central and Southern Mountain DUs, are severely limited by small population sizes (< 50 mature individuals).
Narrative descriptions of the threats are provided below in the general order of highest to lowest overall direct impact for all designatable units, although each threat does not have the same overall impact on either the three DUs or individual subpopulations within each DU. This is followed by a discussion of the geography of threats acting within each DU. Many threats and limiting factors interact with one another.
Predation (IUCN Threat #8.2: Problematic native species)
The highest-impact and most immediate threat to all three western mountain caribou DUs is increased predation that results from large-scale habitat alterations arising from cumulative industrial and natural (fire, insect, windthrow) disturbances. Although forest harvesting and mineral and hydrocarbon exploration and development do not generally result in substantial direct mortality of western mountain caribou (see Industrial Development activities), habitat changes arising from these activities and associated infrastructure affect the abundance, habitat use and movements of both predators and alternate prey (Festa-Bianchet et al. 2011, Serrouya et al. 2011). Predation is directly related to increased prey populations that show a numerical and distribution response to early seral forest resulting from cumulative development activities.
Wolves are the primary predator of caribou in the three DUs (Edmonds 1988, Farnell and McDonald 1988, Seip 1992b, Hayes et al. 2003, McNay 2009, Whittington et al. 2011). Bears, cougars, and wolverine can also be locally and/or seasonally important sources of predation (Kinley and Apps 2001, Cichowski and MacLean 2005, Wittmer et al. 2005b, Gustine et al. 2006a, McNay 2009, Milakovic and Parker 2013). Although predation is the primary cause of mortality (Edmonds and Smith 1991, Seip 1992b, Wittmer et al. 2005b), caribou are usually a secondary prey species in the diets of predators, whose populations are sustained by other prey species such as moose and deer (Seip 1992b, Stotyn 2008, Williamson-Ehlers 2012). While caribou and other prey do not compete directly for resources, other prey affect caribou populations through ‘apparent competition’, which is the indirect interaction between species when they share a common predator. This interaction generally leads to caribou declines when other prey species increase in numbers (Holt 1984, Wittmer et al. 2007, DeCesare et al. 2009).
Historically, predator-prey dynamics on forest-dwelling caribou ranges have fluctuated with environmental conditions and management practices. Moose were largely absent, or present at extremely low densities, in southern and central BC until the late 1800s when they expanded out from refugia in western Canada (Santomauro et al. 2012). ATK indicates that moose were first observed in north-central BC around 1914-1921, that wolf numbers increased since about 1938, and that caribou were disappearing by the 1940s (McKay 1997, Santomauro et al. 2012), while in west-central BC, moose began colonizing the Bulkley Valley in the 1920s (Stronen 2000). Carrier (Tsay Keh Dene) and Sekani (Kwadacha) First Nations ATK holders describe an increase in “… the abundance of wolves and their more persistent presence throughout the year following the first appearance of moose in the early 1920s” (McKay 1997, McNay et al. 2008). Some relatively large populations of caribou were recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Bergerud 1978) following a period in the 1950s and 1960s when wolves and coyotes were poisoned through wide-scale predator control programs (Cringan 1957, Bergerud 1978, Edmonds and Bloomfield 1984, Edmonds 1988, Bergerud and Elliott 1998). Large legal hunting of caribou in BC and Alberta (Bergerud 1978, Edmonds and Bloomfield 1984) combined with recovering wolf populations and adverse weather probably caused caribou population declines in the 1970s.
Western mountain caribou are generally spatially separated from predators and other prey through most of their annual cycle (Seip 1992a, Stotyn 2008, Hebblewhite et al. 2010a, Steenweg 2011, Robinson et al. 2012). In the Southern Mountain DU, spatial separation is greatest during late winter when caribou are found in subalpine forests and wolves, cougars, moose, and deer inhabit valley bottoms; the lowest degree of spatial separation occurs during spring (Seip 1992a, Stotyn 2008, Steenweg 2011). At the broad scale, wolf predation on caribou occurs primarily at low elevations, with mortality risk influenced by habitat changes beyond those areas occupied by caribou, i.e., within the winter ranges of alternative ungulate prey that stimulate population-level numerical responses of predators (Apps et al. 2013). In the Central Mountain DU, caribou select higher elevations and forested habitats and avoid burns, while wolves select burns, areas close to burns, and open habitats and avoid high-elevation/alpine areas (Gustine and Parker 2008, Hebblewhite et al. 2010a, Robinson et al. 2010; Williamson-Ehlers 2013). Farnell (2009) argued that the spatial separation model does not fit the Yukon system because caribou use space that overlaps with moose all year around, except possibly in summer. During calving, caribou spatially separate themselves from other prey and predators by dispersing into high-elevation alpine and subalpine habitat (where forage is limited) or onto islands in lakes where predators are less abundant (Bergerud et al. 1984, Bergerud 1985). In west-central BC, caribou that calve in mountains or on islands have higher neonatal survival than those that calve in low-elevation forests (Seip and Cichowski 1996, Cichowski and MacLean 2005).
Most ATK holders agree that predation is dynamic and somewhat complex; however, they have observed that habitat alteration has allowed other ungulates to move into former caribou territory, which has led to an increase in bear and wolf populations, with increased caribou predation (McKay 1997, Stronen 2000, Hayes and Couture 2004, Littlefield et al. 2007, Tsilhqot'in Nation v. British Columbia 2007, McNay et al. 2008). While caribou do not compete with other ungulates for forage and are spatially separated from them, ATK notes that predation is a year-round pressure on caribou, brought about through a multifaceted interaction among caribou, wolves, and moose. When levels of landscape disturbance are high, moose move into these areas, wolves move with them and then prey on caribou. Elders have noticed that predation on caribou has increased (McKay 1997, McNay et al. 2008).
In the case of declining populations of caribou in the Southern Mountain DU, Wilson (2009) recommended that wolf densities be managed to <1.5 wolves/1000 km2, whereas Hebblewhite et al. (2007) suggested that caribou in Jasper National Park (Central Mountain DU) were most likely to persist when wolf densities were below 2.1-4.3 wolves/1000 km2. In the Northern Mountain DU, recruitment of caribou increased 113% and adult mortality decreased 60% when wolf numbers were reduced 80% on the range of the Finlayson subpopulation in Yukon (Farnell and McDonald 1988). After the wolf removal program ended, the Finlayson population declined to pre-removal numbers (Adamczewski et al. 2007). Removal of 60-90% of wolves over three winters increased recruitment of the Horseranch caribou subpopulation to 16.7% from 5.5% (Bergerud and Elliott 1998). Caribou numbers increased during wolf removal and sterilization on the Aishihik caribou range (Hayes et al. 2003), and continued to increase after the program ended (Hegel and Russell 2010) where wolves may use bison as alternate prey (Jung 2011). In the Southern Mountain DU, on the Barkerville and Wells Gray (north) subpopulation ranges where wolves were removed and sterilized leading to densities of 3.2-3.4 wolves/1000 km2 across about 60% of the study area, the Barkerville subpopulation increased and the Wells Gray (north) subpopulation remained stable, but calf recruitment was variable (Roorda and Wright 2012). Reduction of moose through liberalized hunting resulted in a 71% reduction in moose numbers and about a 50% reduction in wolf numbers on three ranges in the southern portion of the Southern Mountain DU; the Columbia North population experienced a modest increase while the two small populations (Columbia South, Frisby-Boulder) decreased (Serrouya 2013). In the northern portion of the Southern Mountain DU (Parsnip portion of the Hart Ranges), moose numbers declined, possibly as a result of increased hunting, but over 6 years, neither wolf nor caribou numbers appeared to respond (Steenweg 2011, D. Heard, pers. comm. 2013).
Industrial activities (IUCN Threats #3.1 [Oil and gas drilling], 3.2 [Mining and quarrying], 3.3 [Renewable energy], and 5.3 Logging and wood harvesting])
Habitat alteration on caribou ranges in the Northern Mountain, Central Mountain, and Southern Mountain DUs has been linked to increased overlap between caribou and other prey or predators that exist at higher numbers than would otherwise occur in ecosystems dominated by older-age forests (Peters 2010, Robinson et al. 2012). Loss and degradation of habitat is caused by the cumulative effects of natural and anthropogenic disturbance. Human activities contributing to habitat alteration include forest harvesting and salvage logging, oil and gas exploration and development, mineral and hydrocarbon exploration and development, flooding associated with hydroelectric dams, wind energy, agriculture, and settlement areas. Decreasing caribou populations are a result of development and human activities rather than natural causes.
Habitat alteration resulting from natural and industrial disturbance can affect caribou forage (Kranrod 1996, Sulyma 2001, Cichowski et al. 2008, Waterhouse et al. 2011), and the number and distribution of predators (Festa-Bianchet et al. 2011). The recovery of habitats to meet the needs of caribou can take decades, but is highly dependent on ecological conditions (e.g. cover type, soil conditions, disturbance characteristics, slope, aspect, elevation, climate change; Thomas and Armbruster 1996).
Forest succession after logging differs from that after natural disturbance; in particular, succession of lichens after logging depends on initial ecological conditions, degree of disturbance, surface treatment, and reforestation methods. On drier sites dominated by terrestrial lichens, the abundance of terrestrial lichen cover may decrease after clearcut harvesting (Miège et al. 2001), while on more moist sites, harvesting may promote an increase in terrestrial lichen cover (Sulyma 2001). Partial cutting can result in increased arboreal lichen abundance in the lower canopy of the residual forest until new regeneration begins to shelter the lower canopy of remaining trees, while heavier cuts can result in reduced arboreal lichen abundance (Stevenson and Coxson 2007).
Habitat alteration resulting in higher levels of early seral forest (and consequently apparent competition) has been associated with declines of caribou populations and lower adult survival (Smith 2004, Apps and McLellan 2006, Wittmer et al. 2007). In the Southern Mountain DU, Apps et al. (2013) suggested that habitat alteration functions at a broad scale and included winter ranges of primary prey beyond caribou ranges. In the Central Mountain DU, caribou avoid and are less abundant in areas disturbed by forest harvesting (Smith et al. 2000, DeCesare et al. 2012).
ATK holders also noted that forestry results in a high risk to caribou including loss of habitat and negative effects for population growth (Bilko 2006a, b, c, Littlefield et al. 2007). For example, starting in the 1950s clearcutting of large tracts of land started and by the 1970s it came into the Takla Lake area of central BC. The success of hunting animals and fish decreased and clear-cutting pushed all animals northwards (Stronen 2000, Littlefield et al. 2007).
Disturbance resulting from noise, traffic and/or other human-related factors can result in displacement of caribou from preferred or low predation risk habitats, increased stress, changes in movement patterns, increased energy expenditures and/or physical injury or death. Female caribou with calves are the most prone to disturbance, while bulls and all caribou during the insect harassment season are less likely to avoid disturbances (Wolfe et al. 2000). Physical disturbance from roads, drilling sites, and seismic lines have resulted in avoidance of habitats well beyond actual development footprints (Polfus et al. 2011, Williamson-Ehlers et al. 2013).
Industrial activities can lead to increased contamination of land and watersheds. First Nations communities in west-central Alberta observed changes in the colour of rivers and visible oil spills that they believe have resulted from increased industrial activities (West Central Alberta Caribou Landscape Planning Team 2008). Elders from the Kwadacha First Nation and Takla Lake First Nation expressed concern that caribou had been poisoned from drinking from the tailing ponds at Cheni Mines because they observed the stomach and intestines of hunted animals to be green and yellow (Littlefield et al. 2007). ATK from north-central BC also indicated that mining in the 1930s was a cause of local caribou population declines (McKay 1997, McNay et al. 2008).
Roads and Linear Features (IUCN Threat # 4.1 [Roads and railways] and 4.2 [Utility and service lines]
In general, caribou avoid disturbance that is associated with roads and other linear features (Oberg 2001, Hebblewhite et al. 2010a, Polfus et al. 2011, DeCesare et al. 2012, Williamson-Ehlers 2012), even when preferred habitat (e.g., winter habitat with abundant lichens) is available near those features (Florkiewicz et al. 2007). In the Southern Mountain DU, wolf predation on caribou occurred in association with roads at the fine scale, and roads may increase efficiency of movement of some predators and thereby increase encounter rates with caribou (Apps et al. 2013). Roads affect caribou survival directly through vehicle collisions and increased access for regulated and unregulated hunting (Brown and Hobson 1998, ASRD & ACA 2010). Improved access to the summer calving range may increase risk of disturbance by humans during this critical life stage; calving areas are the most sensitive of all habitats for caribou (Seip and Cichowski 1996). Other linear features of concern, which both bisect and fragment existing habitat and contribute to cumulative impacts, include oil and natural gas pipelines and hydro transmission corridors, of which there are multiple existing and planned projects in all three DUs (BC Hydro 2013, BC Environmental Assessment Office 2014, Energy BC 2014, Lamers 2014).
ATK notes that habitat fragmentation resulting from roads, railways, and industrial development has negative effects on caribou and habitat through elevated noise, dust, pollution, and contaminants; these effects can result in population decline or the abandonment of range (“chasing” them northwards). Starting with railroad construction in the early 1900s, caribou in the Telkwa Mountains of BC were impacted and by the 1960s they moved northwards in response to hunters associated with the railroad, mining exploration, and helicopter hunting (Stronen 2000). In the Amazay Lake area of BC, ATK holders noted that “Forestry and mining increased once transportation routes were established and extraction/harvest activities were described as having chased moose and caribou away because they dislike disturbance. The animals go away if there is machinery operating, because they don’t like the noise. Newborn animals don’t like the noise. The beaver and other animals get killed by the trucks” (William George  in Littlefield et al. 2007).
Recreational Activities (IUCN Threat 6.1 [Recreational activities]
Recreational activities on caribou ranges in the Northern Mountain, Central Mountain, and Southern Mountain DUs include snowmobiling, backcountry skiing, heli-skiing, cat-assisted skiing, ATV use, and hiking. Snowmobiling can result in displacement (Powell 2004, Seip et al. 2007), increased stress (Freeman 2008), reduced feeding due to increased vigilance and movement (Powell 2004), and increased access for wolves along packed trails in winter (Powell 2004). Less information is available about the effects of heli-skiing, cat-assisted skiing, and summer recreational activities on caribou, but there is some evidence that heli-skiing results in displacement (Wilson and Hamilton 2003) and increased stress (Freeman 2008) in Southern Mountain DU caribou. Increased concentrations of the fecal stress hormones (glucocorticoids) were detected in caribou located up to 10 km away from winter recreational activities (Freeman 2008). Chronic disturbance and stress could potentially lead to reduced body condition and consequent population-level effects (Simpson and Terry 2000).
The disturbance effects of recreation appear to be common across the circumpolar distribution of Rangifer. Backcountry skiing/snowshoeing has resulted in displacement of reindeer in mountainous terrain in Norway (Reimers et al. 2003, 2006), increased vigilance following encounters for caribou in the Laurentian Highlands in Quebec (Duchesne et al. 2000), and increased access for wolves on packed trails. During summer, reindeer in mountainous areas in Norway avoided areas with tourist trails, resorts, and cabins (Vistnes and Nellemann 2001, Vistnes et al. 2008). Caribou reactions to recreational disturbance may also be influenced by environmental conditions. In Newfoundland, Mahoney et al. (2001) found that caribou in Newfoundland fled at shorter distances and responded more slowly to snowmobiles during a deep snow winter, presumably as an attempt to decrease energy expenditure. In Scandinavia, reindeer select insect relief areas distant from human activity, but will use insect relief areas where hiking activity is high, if those are the only insect relief areas available (Skarin et al. 2004, Vistnes et al. 2008)
Natural Disturbances (IUCN Threat #7.1 [Fire and fire suppression], 7.3 [Other ecosystem modifications], 10.3 [Avalanches and Landslides])
Similar to industrial development, habitat alteration following natural disturbance can affect caribou directly through the loss of forage, or through indirect impacts associated with habitat change favouring other prey species (Kranrod 1996, Sulyma 2001, Cichowski et al. 2008, Waterhouse et al. 2011). Fire and forest insects are the primary natural disturbances on low-elevation winter ranges of all western mountain caribou. Historically, when disturbance from a wildfire occurred in these ranges, caribou would shift their range to more suitable areas. However, the increase in industrial activities has reduced available suitable habitat such that natural disturbances are a more pronounced threat. As an example, the Mountain Pine Beetle has now killed a cumulative total of 710 million m3 of timber. The cumulative area of B.C. affected to some degree (red-attack and grey-attack) is estimated at 18.1 million hectares (BC MFLRNO 2013). The Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic in BC and Alberta has initially resulted in increased abundance of dwarf shrubs, with a corresponding decrease in terrestrial lichens (Cichowski et al. 2008, 2009, Seip and Jones 2010, Waterhouse 2011) within Central and Northern Mountain caribou ranges.
Avalanches are a frequent occurrence in mountainous habitat and although not well documented, have been known to kill caribou. The last five individuals remaining in the Banff subpopulation were killed by an avalanche in 2009 (Hebblewhile et al. 2009). Seven of 31 (23%) of radio-collared caribou in the Lake Revelstoke study area were killed by avalanches between 1981-85 and 1992-98 (Flaa and Mclellan 2000). Wittmer et al. (2005) recorded 20 of 98 (20%) classifiable mortalities (total of 165 mortalities) as accidents, which included avalanches, birthing and falls. For comparison, predation was identified as a cause in 67 of 98 (68%) cases.
Parasites and Diseases (IUCN Threat # 8.1 [Invasive non-native alien species])
Although parasites and infectious diseases have not been found to be a significant direct cause of mortality in caribou in these three DUs, they may be under-diagnosed (H. Schwantje, pers. comm. 2013). Some have the potential to affect reproductive output and/or, as chronic diseases can lead to reduced vigour, the potential to result in greater susceptibility to predation. Climate change can lead to increased prevalence, intensity, and geographic distribution of some parasites, reduced parasite survival of others, facilitated invasion of new parasites, and the invasion of new hosts, resulting in introduction of new parasites and changes in abundance and distribution of endemic parasite species (Kutz et al. 2009).
Several macro and microparasites are known to have impacts on condition, survival, and fecundity of Rangifer at the individual and population levels. Prevalence of infection and outcomes are strongly influenced by community structure, behaviour, and habitat and climatic conditions. Although the literature on pathogens in western mountain caribou is limited, there are considerable data on infectious disease in caribou and reindeer elsewhere that demonstrate the potential impact of this threat. Ectoparasites of concern include ticks, lice, and insects. Tick paralysis caused by the Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni) has been reported in one of the caribou that was translocated to the Purcells in 2012. This caribou dispersed into the northern US and was found infested with wood ticks and paralyzed. Ticks were removed and the animal relocated to BC (L. de Groot, pers. comm. 2013). Several other of these animals were reported to have died from predation; however, the role of tick paralysis in increasing susceptibility to predation was not evaluated. Under conditions of increasing range restriction and climate warming, tick paralysis needs to be considered as a potentially important and irreversible limiting factor for caribou at the southern extent of their range. Dermacentor albipictus, the winter tick, also infests caribou and can cause severe clinical signs and debilitating disease (Welch et al. 1990).
Two tissue protozoan parasites of particular note are Neospora caninum and Toxoplasma gondii. Serological surveys for these parasites in these DUs have been limited; however, Neospora caninum was detected in 6% of caribou examined in BC (Sifton 2001), and in Chisana caribou in Yukon (Kutz et al. 2012). Toxoplasma gondii was found in Chisana caribou (Kutz et al. 2012) but not in any of the 111 caribou examined in BC (Sifton 2001). These parasites have a predator-prey lifecycle with a variety of cervids (including Rangifer) and bovids as intermediate hosts, where they can cause abortion, stillbirth, fetal abnormalities, and weak offspring (Kutz et al. 2012). The parasites may also be transmitted across generations transplacentally. Both parasites may have significant impacts on pregnancy rates and calf survival and are likely underdiagnosed.
In BC, the tissue protozoan Besnoitia tarandi was diagnosed in 23% of caribou sampled, with a higher proportion of animals infected in the northern part of the province (Lewis 1989). This intracellular parasite is common in barrenground caribou across northern Canada. It forms cysts within the skin and eye sclera and clinical signs of crusting and hair loss generally on the lower legs may occur, although in most cases infections are subclinical (Kutz et al. 2012). Although it is typically subclinical in wild barrenground caribou, severe outbreaks of disease have been reported in caribou in a zoo setting (Glover et al., 1990) and in the George and Leaf caribou herds of Quebec (Ducrocq et al., 2012). Epidemiological evidence in the latter also suggests lower winter survival of heavily infected animals (Ducrocq et al. 2013). Besnoitia tarandi has extremely limited genetic variability and may have previously been restricted to the Beringian lineage of caribou (Madubata et al. 2012). This may suggest that caribou of the North American lineage (i.e., Southern and some Central Mountain Caribou) are naïve and particularly susceptible to this parasite.
Gastrointestinal parasites are common among western mountain caribou (e.g., those found in Chisana caribou include Eimeria spp., cestodes, and nematodes Nematodirus, Ostertagia gruehneri, Teladorsagia boreoarcticus) (Hoar et al. 2009). Ostertagia gruehneri can cause gastrointestinal signs that influence body condition, fecundity, and population dynamics in Svalbard reindeer (Albon et al. 2002). The protostrongylid meningeal nematode, Parelaphostrongylus tenuis (meningeal worm or brainworm), causes severe and typically fatal neurologic disease in most North American cervids, with the exception of white-tailed deer (Kutz et al. 2012). It is considered a limiting factor for re-introduction of caribou in eastern Canada and US (Pitt and Jordan 1994). Until recently P. tenuis was restricted to eastern Canada and USA; however, a recent report of it in a moose in northwestern Saskatchewan (Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre) indicates a substantial westward range expansion and the potential to become an important limiting factor for western mountain caribou in the future.
Flying and biting insects can affect caribou by vectoring some blood-borne parasites and other pathogens. In some cases, insects can cause significant harassment and loss of blood. Important insects include warble flies (Hypoderma tarandi), nose bot flies (Cephenemyaa trompe), mosquitoes (Aedes spp.), black flies (Simulium spp.), horseflies (Tabanus spp.), and deer flies (Chrysops spp.). Summer behaviour of caribou is influenced by actions to reduce exposure to insects and insect-borne parasites. For example, the use of long-lasting snowbanks by caribou in summer is likely a response to insect harassment. The severity of insect harassment is related to insect density and weather, and observed climatic warming could add to the problem (see Witter et al. 2012).
Climate Change and Severe Weather (IUCN Threat # 11.1 [Habitat shifting and alteration] and 11.4 [Storms and flooding])
Caribou in the three DUs have adapted to a wide range of climate--from areas of high precipitation in mountains of the Southern Mountain DU to relatively dry conditions in the Central and Northern Mountain DUs. However, climate change will have a number of impacts on the distribution and abundance of caribou. Large-scale climate patterns can affect calf recruitment. In Yukon, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) during the winter prior to birth and May climate at calving was positively related to calf recruitment (Hegel et al. 2010a). Higher PDO values during winter represent decreased precipitation and increased temperature during May, both leading to a reduced snowpack at calving and an earlier onset of the first snowfree day of the year. This can affect the ability of pregnant females to move to higher-elevation areas. The PDO had a slight negative affect on recruitment, possibly due to faster green-up and altered availability of highly nutritious forage needed for lactation and subsequent calf growth (Hegel et al. 2010b).
Detrimental effects of climate change could include altered frequency and severity of natural disturbances (fire and forest insects), changes in vegetation composition, shifts in species and distribution of other ungulates, and increased incidence of diseases and parasites (Vors and Boyce 2009). Increased summer temperatures and extended fire seasons could result in increased area disturbed by fire. Increased winter temperatures and fewer cold weather extremes could lead to increased forest insect activity. Currently, the Mountain Pine Beetle has affected significant portions of some Northern Mountain DU and Central Mountain DU caribou winter ranges in both BC and Alberta. In the past, caribou could respond to natural disturbance events, if needed, by shifting their distribution from disturbed areas to other portions of their range. However, as impacts from anthropogenic disturbance and climate change increase, caribou will have fewer suitable areas into which they can move either within or between ranges.
Climate change can result in changes to vegetation composition even without changes to natural disturbance patterns. Predicted warmer temperatures could lead to ecological conditions that favour vegetation species that can outcompete terrestrial lichens and/or that are preferred by other prey species (Hamann and Wang 2006). Vors and Boyce (2009) suggest that if green-up of vegetation shifts forward but timing of calving does not change, caribou may not be able to take advantage of high-quality forage when energy requirements are high during lactation. Even though caribou can dig through deep snow (>1 m; Johnson et al. 2000), this comes at a cost to energy reserves. A change in either snow depth or hardness may impede access to terrestrial lichens.
Changes in vegetation species and snow conditions due to climate change could result in northward expansion of ranges of other ungulate species and further alter predator-prey relationships. Hoefs (2001), for example, reports both mule (Odocoileus hemionus) and white-tailed deer have colonized the southern Yukon, with white-tailed deer first observed north of the BC border in 1975. Recently, there have been more observations of elk and white-tailed deer north of 62° along the Mackenzie Mountains in western NT (Veitch 2001, N. Larter, pers. comm. 2013).
Climate change could also result in more favourable conditions for diseases and parasites that affect caribou (see Parasites and diseases). Disease has played a major role in caribou declines in eastern North America where altered landscapes and mild winters allowed white-tailed deer carrying the meningeal worm to expand north and infect caribou (Bergerud and Mercer 1989). Longer summer seasons could also speed up life cycles for some parasites.
Overhunting (IUCN Threat #5.1 [Hunting and collecting terrestrial animals])
Historically, overhunting of caribou was a result of increased road access associated with industrial and recreational development (Bergerud 1978, Stevenson and Hatler 1985). Recreational (licensed) hunting is currently closed for all caribou in the Southern Mountain and Central Mountain DUs, and for most subpopulations in west-central and north-central BC. Where caribou hunting is open in BC, it is largely regulated through a 5-point bull-only season or limited entry hunting. Hunting by First Nations is unknown but suspected to be low for most subpopulations (Environment Canada 2014).
In Yukon, hunting for Northern Mountain DU caribou is closed or under permit for some subpopulations, and open for bulls only for most subpopulations. The average annual hunt by licensed hunters declined from over 300 in the 1980s to 212 in 2011. Hunting has been restricted to bulls since 1984 but First Nation harvest is unregulated and is suspected to equal that of licensed hunting (Farnell et al. 1998). In NT, hunting of Northern Mountain DU caribou is open for all subpopulations and either males or females can be hunted. Approximately 300-350 Northern Mountain DU caribou are hunted by First Nation or resident license holders each year (Environment Canada 2012).
Contaminants in caribou in Yukon were monitored from 1993 to 2004 (Gamberg 2004). Levels of cadmium were higher than for caribou in other areas, but cadmium in all caribou samples was less than the 400-800 ppm at which renal dysfunction can occur, and levels found in Yukon were considered background levels that enter the food chain from natural mineralization (Gamberg 2004). A recent study of caribou in the Mackenzie Mountains in NT (Larter et al. 2013) found that renal radionuclides were higher in caribou than the other 3 sympatric ungulates (mountain goat [Oreamnos americanus], Dall’s sheep [Ovis dalli dalli], moose) but are not at levels of animal health/human consumption concern. Cadmium levels were lower than moose but higher than the other 2 ungulates, althugh there was mild evidence of cadmium toxicity in 5 of 6 caribou kidneys. Mercury was higher than for other ungulates and significantly higher than for moose.
Geography of Threats within Each DU2
Regional biologists (see Authorities Contacted and Acknowledgements) were queried on the most important threats in each DU, as summarized below.
Northern Mountain DU (7)
The diversity of threats and limiting factors affecting subpopulations in the Northern Mountain DU reflects the wide range of environmental conditions and levels of human activities across the DU (Environment Canada 2012). Major concerns across the DU include: altered predator-prey dynamics due to habitat change, human disturbance and habitat loss due to forest harvesting, mineral exploration and development, and associated access, changes in habitat structure following Mountain Pine Beetle infestations and/or associated salvage logging, and motorized and non-motorized recreational activities.
In the northern portion of this DU mineral exploration and development represent important threats identified for these subpopulations. These activities are expected to increase disturbance and access; the latter is expected to increase hunting pressure. Larger-scale habitat losses as a result of fire have also been identified as past and ongoing threats to caribou habitat. Although the density of roads in the northern part of the DU may be lower than in the southern part of the DU, vehicle collisions are a concern for the Carcross, Little Rancheria, Swan Lake, Tsenaglode, and Chase subpopulations where major highways or arterial roads traverse their ranges. In the southern part of the DU, altered predator/prey dynamics due to habitat change are primarily a result of forest harvesting, whereas in the northeastern part of BC, habitat change is largely a result of prescribed burning. Current and proposed mineral exploration and development has recently become more of a threat to subpopulations in Yukon. Multiple proposed mineral and hydrocarbon exploration and development projects and windfarms are becoming more of a threat in northcentral and northeastern BC. Although proposed industrial activities have yet to take place, the effects of some of those activities could result in considerable impacts to caribou. Industrial activities have already resulted in concerns about reduced connectivity between subpopulations in that area. Some potential industrial projects in northwestern BC are likely to become more viable with the Northwest Transmission Line, which is currently being constructed.
Some threats do not affect a large number of subpopulations, but can be locally significant. For example, summer recreation (hiking and ATV use) in post-calving habitat is a major threat to the Telkwa caribou subpopulation in west-central BC. It also should be noted that many subpopulations are threatened by several threats simultaneously. For example, the Itcha-Ilgachuz subpopulation is threatened by habitat loss due to fire, Mountain Pine Beetle infestations, and timber harvesting in addition to increased access, hunting, and predation.
Central Mountain DU (8)
The primary threats to caribou in the Central Mountain DU include: altered predator-prey dynamics due to habitat change resulting from forest harvesting in combination with oil and gas exploration and development; and human disturbance and other habitat loss due to multiple industrial activities and associated infrastructure. Other factors include vehicle collisions, motorized recreation (ATV, snowmobiling), facilitated access for predators, small population effects, and the emerging threat of infectious disease, particularly in a changing climate. Cumulative effects from industrial activities are a concern in this DU because of the many industrial activities occurring. For example, threats on the Quintette subpopulation range include altered predator-prey dynamics due to habitat change resulting from forest harvesting in adjacent valley bottoms, coal exploration and development, gas exploration and development, and potential windfarms. The rate of development for most of those activities has increased considerably since the late 1990s (Williamson-Ehlers et al. 2013). Although existing windfarms are currently located outside high-value caribou habitats, investigative permits cover portions of three subpopulation ranges. In addition to direct disturbance from motorized recreation, snowmobiling can result in facilitated access for wolves into caribou ranges and continued ATV use will limit prospects for vegetation regeneration on linear features, a necessary component of habitat recovery.
Southern Mountain DU (9)
The primary threats to caribou in the Southern Mountain DU include altered predator/prey dynamics due to habitat change resulting from forest harvesting in adjacent low-elevation valley bottoms, and from increased predator efficiency using trails created by snowmobiling and other recreational activities. The emerging threat of infectious disease serves as an additional threat that will likely increase its impact, particularly in a changing climate. Altered predator-prey dynamics was a concern for all 14 subpopulations and heli-skiing and snowmobiling were concerns for 10 (67%) and 13 (87%) subpopulations, respectively. There were few concerns about industrial activities other than forest harvesting in valley bottoms, although the effects of the flooding of valley floors for hydroelectric generation was a concern for four subpopulations. Increasing isolation and the effects of small populations was indicated as a threat to three subpopulations (Narrow Lake, Groundhog, and Purcells Central). Small populations, in the short term, are at increased risk of extirpation as a result of ongoing impacts or catastrophic events and, in the long term, problems associated with low genetic diversity. Climate change trend towards drying and warming may threaten caribou in this DU through increased fire frequency and changes that favour competitor species (deer and moose).
Numbers of Locations
The concept of locations is not applicable to caribou subpopulations in each DU because of the variation in ecological conditions and threats, and the widespread and sometimes isolated distribution of caribou subpopulations within each DU.
Protection, Status, and Ranks
Legal Protection and Status
Caribou in the former COSEWIC Southern Mountain population are currently listed as Threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act. This includes all caribou in the Southern Mountain and Central Mountain DUs and 9 subpopulations in the west-central BC and north-central BC portions of the Northern Mountain DU considered in this report. Caribou in the former Northern Mountains population, which includes most of the subpopulations in the Northern Mountain DU in this report, are currently listed as Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act. A Recovery Strategy under the federal Species at Risk Act for the Southern Mountain population was released in 2014 (Environment Canada 2014). A Management Plan was developed for caribou in the Northern Mountain National Ecological Area (Environment Canada 2012), which includes 36 of the 45 subpopulations of the Northern Mountain DU considered in this report.
Central Mountain DU caribou in Alberta are currently categorized as Threatened under Alberta’s Wildlife Regulation of the Wildlife Act. All caribou in BC are identified as both species at risk and ungulates under the Government Actions Regulation of the Forest and Range Practices Act, and under the Environmental Protection and Management Regulation of the Oil and Gas Activities Act. Caribou are also a Schedule A species (designated as wildlife under the BC Wildlife Act), which offers protection from direct persecution and mortality (Province of British Columbia 1982). The Chisana caribou subpopulation in Yukon was designated as a specially protected wildlife population under the Wildlife Act in 2002, but may be removed pending a regulation review. In 1984, caribou in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho and Washington were listed as Endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the US Endangered Species Act. Caribou are not listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
A provincial recovery strategy was prepared for the deep snow mountain ecotype of caribou of the Southern Mountain population in BC (MCTAC 2002) and, subsequently, the Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan was announced in 2007 (Mountain Caribou Recovery Implementation Plan Progress Board 2012). A draft recovery strategy was developed for shallow-snow ecotype of caribou of the Southern Mountain population (i.e. Southern Mountain National Ecological Area) in BC, but was not endorsed by the BC government (NCTAC 2004). A Recovery Implementation Plan was also developed for the shallow-snow ecotype of caribou of the Southern Mountain population in north-central BC, but was not endorsed by government (McNay et al. 2008). More recently, an Implementation Plan was developed for the South Peace subpopulations in BC including the Quintette, Burnt Pine, Kennedy Siding, Moberly, and Scott subpopulations in the Central Mountain DU, and the Graham subpopulation in the Northern Mountain DU (BC Ministry of Environment 2013).
In Alberta, a recovery plan for caribou received qualified approval by government in 2005 (Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Team 2005, ASRD&ACA 2010). As part of that plan, the West Central Alberta Caribou Landscape Planning Team was formed and the team developed a landscape plan for the area (West Central Caribou Landscape Planning Team 2008). That landscape plan was not officially approved or endorsed by the Alberta government.
Federal, provincial/territorial, and/or First Nation governments have developed management plans or recommendations for individual subpopulations (e.g., Chisana Caribou Herd Working Group 2012). The Southern Lakes Caribou Recovery Program called for the cessation of all hunting on the Ibex, Carcross and Atlin herds after 1993 (Southern Lakes Caribou Recovery Program Progress Report, 1992 – 1996.), when six Yukon First Nations (Carcross, Tagish, Kwanlin Dun, Teslin Tlingit, Ta’an Kwach’an, Champagne and Aishihik) and the Taku River Tlingit in BC voluntarily stopped hunting those herds. The Taku River Tlingit resumed hunting the Atlin herd in 2007. BC has maintained a 5-point bull caribou season on the Carcross herd over the moratorium period. The Tlingit have had a voluntary closure on caribou hunting of the Carcross subpopulation since the early 2000s (Botkin et al. 2005, Clark 2006), and the West Moberly First Nation has had a voluntary closure on caribou hunting in the Moberly area since the flooding of the Williston Reservoir in the 1970s (West Moberly First Nations v. British Columbia, 2011).
All jurisdictions have legislation that is used to close hunting, establish limited entry hunts of specific sex and age classes, prohibit night hunting, etc. (see Threats and Limiting Factors – Hunting).
Non-Legal Status and Ranks
Globally, caribou are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Least Concern, but subspecies or ecotypes are not differentiated (IUCN 2012). NatureServe ranks caribou as secure globally, secure at the population level (T) for the Northern Mountain DU, and imperilled at the population level for caribou in the Southern Mountain and Central Mountain DUs considered in this report (NatureServe 2012). Provincially, caribou in the Southern Mountain DU and in the Alberta portion of the Central Mountain DU are ranked as Critically Imperilled, caribou in the Central Mountain and Northern Mountain DUs in BC and in the Northern Mountain DU in Yukon are provincially ranked as vulnerable, while caribou in the Northern Mountain DU in the NT are ranked as secure. In BC, all Northern Mountain DU and Central Mountain DU caribou are on the Blue list, and all Southern Mountain DU caribou are on the Red list. In the US, caribou in Idaho and Washington are ranked critically imperilled (S1), while caribou in Alaska are ranked secure (S5; NatureServe 2012). Alaska has identified the Chisana subpopulation of caribou as a species of conservation concern (ADFG 2006).
Habitat Protection and Ownership
The majority of caribou habitat in the Northern Mountain, Central Mountain, and Southern Mountain DUs is on public land. In NT, much of the Redstone subpopulation range is included the southwestern portion of the Sahtu Settlement Area, and in the southern portion of the Gwich’in Settlement Area within a restricted development area.
Protected areas cover 22%, 41%, and 32% of the Northern Mountain, Central Mountain, and Southern Mountain DUs respectively. Provincial or territorial protected areas make up 84%, 70%, and 40% of the area protected within Northern Mountain, Central Mountain, and Southern Mountain DU caribou range areas, respectively. In the Northern Mountain DU, Nahanni National Park Reserve and the adjacent Naats’ich’oh National Park Reserve cover over 2.5 million ha of contiguous caribou range, and Spatsizi Wilderness Park, Northern Rocky Mountains Park, and Tweedsmuir Park each protect over 600 000 ha of caribou range. In Yukon, Tombstone Territorial Park protects over 220 000 ha of caribou habitat. Most of the rest of the areas protected within caribou ranges in the Northern Mountain DU are less than 100 000 ha in size.
In the Central Mountain DU, about 80% of the protected landbase within caribou ranges is included in Jasper National Park, Willmore Wilderness Park, Kakwa Wildland Park (Alberta), and Kakwa Park (BC). The contiguous area of protection contains mostly high-elevation summer range for the Narraway, A La Peche, and Redrock-Prairie Creek subpopulations and all of the Tonquin, Brazeau, and Maligne (Jasper) subpopulation ranges. Most low-elevation winter ranges and most areas within the other subpopulation ranges in the Central Mountain DU (i.e., in the northern half of the DU) are not protected.
In the Southern Mountain DU, about 70% of the protected landbase within caribou ranges is included in 3 contiguous provincial parks: Wells Gray, Cariboo Mountains, and Bowron Lake parks, which protect portions of the Wells Gray and North Cariboo Mountains subpopulation ranges. The remaining protected areas (or portions of protected areas) that are located within caribou ranges are each less than 35 000 ha in size.
As of 2009, 2.2 million hectares of caribou habitat in the Southern Mountain DU have been either designated as Ungulate Winter Ranges or Wildlife Habitat Areas under the Government Actions Regulation of the Forest and Range Practices Act or protected in existing protected areas, and approximately 1 000 000 ha were closed to motorized vehicles (primarily to restrict snowmobiling) under the Motor Vehicle Prohibition Regulation of the Wildlife Act (BC Ministry of Environment 2009). Ungulate Winter Ranges and Wildlife Habitat Areas include primarily high-elevation range and General Wildlife Measures for those designations generally provide for areas of no forest harvesting and modified forest harvesting. They also provide restrictions on mineral exploration and guided adventure tourism activities during the calving season. Ungulate Winter Ranges and Wildlife Habitat Areas have also been designated in the Central Mountain and Northern Mountain DUs in BC. General Wildlife Measures for those areas vary with respect to the proportion of area excluded from forest harvesting, and the levels and methods of forest harvesting in modified harvest areas.
The South Peace Northern Caribou Implementation Plan (BC Ministry of Environment 2013) provides for protection of ≥90% of identified high-elevation winter ranges across the plan area (includes Graham subpopulation from Northern Mountain DU, and Moberly, Scott, Burnt Pine, Quintette, and Narraway subpopulations from Central Mountain DU), and for protection of ≥80% of identified high-elevation winter ranges specifically on the Quintette range, but does not specify how the protected portion of the range will be distributed geographically. The BC government has also used Section 16 Land Act reserves, Resource Review Areas under Oil and Gas Policy, Ungulate Winter Ranges and Wildlife Habitat Areas under the Oil and Gas Activities Act, No Disposition Reserves under the Mineral Tenure Act and Coal Act, to legally protect caribou habitat.
Acknowledgements and Authorities Contacted
Callaghan, Kristen. Wildife Biologist. Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board. InuvikNorthwest Territories.
Carrière, Suzanne. Ecosystem Management Biologist. Northwest Territories Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Government of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
Court, Gord. Provincial Status Wildlife Biologist. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. Government of Alberta. Edmonton, Alberta.
Fraser, David. Scientific Assessment Authority. British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Government of British Columbia, Victoria, British Columbia.
Jung, Thomas. Senior Wildlife Biologist, Environment Yukon, Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Simmons, Deborah. Sahtu Renewable Resources Board. Tulita, Northwest Territories.
Van Tighem, Graham. Executive Director. Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board. Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
Funding for this report was provided by Environment Canada. The writer thanks Justina Ray for her guidance and patience throughout the writing process and for coordinating input from reviewers. Thank you also to the members of the COSEWIC Terrestrial Mammals Subcommittee (in particular Chris Johnson, Stephen Petersen, Martin-Hugues St-Laurent, and Ian Thompson), Dan Benoit and other members of the ATK Subcommittee, the numerous other reviewers who provided insightful comments and improvements to earlier drafts. Thanks to Greg Ferguson/Stephen Hureau (Environment Canada) and Dave Fraser (Government of British Columbia) for organizing and leading, respectively, the threats calculator calls for the three DUs, and to Bonnie Fournier (Environment and Natural Resources, Government of the Northwest Territories), who produced the maps and GIS area summaries.
The writer would especially like to thank the following people who provided information on and insights into individual subpopulations, and who graciously and tirelessly responded to a constant barrage of questions and requests for often unpublished information.
Environment and Natural Resources, Northwest Territories
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
Environment and Natural Resources, Northwest Territories
Leo de Groot
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
BC Ministry of Environment
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development
University of Northern British Columbia
Environment and Natural Resources, Northwest Territories
Wildlife Infometrics Inc. (BC)
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
BC Ministry of Environment
Columbia Mountains Caribou Project (BC)
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations
Also, many thanks to all others who contributed, but who are not specifically mentioned here.
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Biographical Summary of Report Writer(s)
Deborah Cichowski is an independent consultant based in Smithers, British Columbia. She received her BSc and MSc degrees from the University of British Columbia and has been involved with research, inventory, planning and management of caribou in British Columbia since 1985. Her current research recent work has focused on the effects of the mountain pine beetle epidemic on caribou habitat use and terrestrial lichens. Deborah has been involved with recovery planning for northern and boreal caribou in British Columbia and has prepared a number of documents that summarize the current state of knowledge and issues facing caribou populations.
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