Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) barren-ground population COSEWIC assessment and status report 2016: chapter 1

Document information

Committee on the Status
of Endangered Wildlife
in Canada


Comité sur la situation
des espèces en péril
au Cananda

COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Caribou Rangifer tarandus, Barren-ground population in Canada

COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Blanding’s Turtle

COSEWIC status reports are working documents used in assigning the status of wildlife species suspected of being at risk. This report may be cited as follows:

COSEWIC. 2016. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Caribou Rangifer tarandus, Barren-ground population,in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. xiii + 123 pp. (Species at Risk Public Registry website).

Production note:

COSEWIC would like to acknowledge Anne Gunn, Kim Poole, and Don Russell for writing the status report on Caribou (Rangifer tarandus), Barren-ground population, in Canada, prepared under contract with Environment Canada. This report was overseen and edited by Justina Ray, Co-chair of the COSEWIC Terrestrial Mammals Specialist Subcommittee, with the support of the members of the Terrestrial Mammals Specialist Subcommittee.

For additional copies contact:

COSEWIC Secretariat
c/o Canadian Wildlife Service
Environment Canada
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0H3

Tel.: 819-938-4125
Fax: 819-938-3984
E-mail: COSEWIC E-mail
Website: COSEWIC

Également disponible en français sous le titre Ếvaluation et Rapport de situation du COSEPAC sur le Caribou (Rangifer tarandus), population de la toundra, au Canada.

Cover illustration/photo:

Caribou - Photo by A. Gunn.

COSEWIC Assessment summary

Assessment summary - November 2016

Common name
Caribou - Barren-ground population
Scientific name
Rangifer tarandus
Reason for designation
Members of this population give birth on the open arctic tundra, and most subpopulations (herds) winter in vast subarctic forests. Well-known for its large aggregations, lengthy migrations, and significant cultural and social value to northern Aboriginal Peoples and other Canadians, its 14-15 subpopulations range from northeastern Alaska to western Hudson Bay and Baffin Island. Numbering more than 2 million individuals in the early 1990s, the current population is estimated at about 800,000. Most subpopulations have declined dramatically, but two are increasing, including the Porcupine Caribou Herd. For 70% of the population with sufficient data to quantify trends, the decline is estimated at 56% over the past three generations (since 1989), with several of the largest herds having declined by >80% from peak numbers. Available survey data for an additional 25% of the total population also indicate declines. Evidence from both local Aboriginal people and scientific studies suggests that most herds have undergone natural fluctuations in numbers in the past; however, available demographic data indicate no sign of rapid recovery at this time and cumulative threats are without historical precedent. Status meets criteria for Endangered because of a reduction in numbers of ≥50%, but Threatened is recommended because, overall, this population does not appear to be facing imminent extinction at this time. Despite worrisome declines across most of the range, the current numerical abundance of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and the initiation of numerous management actions by governments, wildlife management boards, and communities support Threatened as a more appropriate conservation status. The status of these subpopulations will have to be carefully monitored and may warrant re-assessment within five years.
Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba
Status history
Designated Threatened in November 2016

Executive Summary

Rangifer tarandus

Barren-ground population

Wildlife species description and significance

All the world’s caribou and reindeer belong to a single cervid species, Rangifer tarandus, and are found in arctic and subarctic regions as well as in northern forests. Barren-ground Caribou are characterized by long migrations and highly gregarious behaviour, often travelling in groups of hundreds or thousands. As a relatively large herbivore with an extensive distribution and high numbers, Barren-ground Caribou is a keystone species, playing a key ecological and cultural role in northern ecosystems.

The significance of Barren-ground Caribou to the peopling of northern Canada is evident from archaeological findings tracking the distribution of people and Barren-ground Caribou relative to the retreating glaciers some 8,000 years ago in the central barrens and as long as 12-15,000 years ago in the central range of the Porcupine subpopulation. Barren-ground Caribou have been and continue to be a key resource for people in northern Canada; in some cases these animals have such importance that families would follow their migration. They have significant direct economic value from harvest, primarily for subsistence use. They also contribute to the northern economy through wildlife tourism and recreational hunting; beyond this, they have incalculable cultural value for people throughout the subpopulation ranges.


The global range of Barren-ground Caribou extends from Alaska to western Greenland, and is continuous across northern continental mainland Canada, from northwestern Yukon to Baffin Island. The northern extent is the Arctic mainland coast; the southern extent is northern Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. Sampling efforts and methods have varied among subpopulations, leading to differences in interpreting subpopulation structure; 14-15 are recognized in this report. Some are combined for the purposes of generating population abundance and trend estimates, for a total of 13 units. Ten subpopulations have been consistently identified for the past several decades, mainly through fidelity to calving areas.

Fluctuating abundance of individual subpopulations affects distribution; as Barren-ground Caribou decline in abundance their distribution (especially during winter) changes, reducing the length of fall and pre-calving migration. Mainland subpopulations of Barren-ground Caribou generally migrate toward the Arctic coast to calve, and occur during summer and fall on the tundra of the Southern Arctic ecozone. Western and central mainland subpopulations usually winter in the boreal forests of the Taiga Cordillera, Taiga Plains or Taiga Shield ecozones.

Habitat and habitat trends

Habitat requirements are partly driven by the need for forage, which depends on the timing of the caribou’s annual breeding cycle and its nutritional costs relative to the brief plant growing season and long winters of the sub-arctic and arctic regions. Caribou are generalist foragers, especially in summer, and select among grasses, sedges, shrubs and forbs for nutrient content according to the stage of plant growth rather than plant species. Barren-ground Caribou require large annual ranges (several hundred thousand square kilometres in size) to enable selection of alternative habitats in response to annual variations in the environment, such as snow cover, plant growth, and/or predation or parasite risk. Habitat attributes that are important for calving include those that reduce predation risk and maximize nutrition intake; these vary among calving grounds. Forage requirements depend on the timing of the annual breeding cycle relative to the brief plant growing season and long winter that is characteristic of the sub-arctic and arctic regions. On summer ranges, caribou seek habitats that reduce exposure to insect harassment, while obtaining high-quality forage. While most subpopulations winter in the boreal forest, several remain in tundra habitats at that time.

Within the previous three generations, there has been some reduction in habitat as a consequence of the natural fragmentation of the winter ranges caused by forest fires and increasing human presence (i.e., infrastructure) on the caribou ranges. However, habitat outside the forested winter range is still largely intact at the landscape scale. The generally increasing trends in human population will increase economic development (industrial development, roads and traffic) within Barren-ground Caribou ranges in the future.


Caribou usually first calve at three years of age, although they can calve at two years when conditions are favourable. Females give birth to a single calf and may breed every year, although if nutritionally stressed they do not conceive every year. Calving is highly synchronized, generally occurring over a 2-week period in June. The breeding system is polygynous. Annual migrations and gregarious behaviour are the most conspicuous characteristics of most Barren-ground Caribou subpopulations. They are adapted to a long winter season when cold temperatures, wind chill and snow impose high energetic costs. Those costs are met through reducing their maintenance energy requirements and mobilizing fat and protein reserves.

Predation is an important factor affecting many facets of caribou ecology, as caribou movements and habitat choices are often made to minimize exposure to predators. An array of predators and scavengers depend on Barren-ground Caribou: Grizzly Bears (Ursus arctos) are effective predators on newborn calves, while Gray Wolves (Canis lupus, hereafter referred as Wolves) are predators of all sex and age classes throughout the year. Pathogens (including viruses, bacteria, helminths and protozoa) together with insects, play an important role in caribou ecology with effects ranging from subtle effects on reproduction through to clinical disease and death.

Population sizes and trends

The current population of Barren-ground Caribou is estimated at about 800,000 individuals. Between 1986 and mid-1990s, the overall trend was an increase to > two million, followed by a decline, which has persisted through today. Of 13 subpopulation units used to derive abundance estimates, eight are declining, two are increasing, and three are unknown. The median three-generation percentage decline in the total number of Barren-ground Caribou was 56.8% (range = -50.8 – -59.0%), based on the summed population change for seven subpopulations with sufficient survey data, which comprise almost 70% of the total current population. Four of these seven subpopulations declined by >80% during this period, one had a median decline of -39%, characterized by marked variability, whereas the remaining two increased. Available survey data for three additional subpopulations, representing about 25% of the total population, also suggest declines; the current trajectories of another three subpopulations are unknown, due to lack of recent surveys.

Evidence from ATK and scientific study suggests that Barren-ground Caribou subpopulations undergo periods of high and low numbers (fluctuations) that might resemble population cycles. The evidence is, however, insufficient to consistently infer a naturally occurring cyclic increase across the full range of subpopulations. Available demographic data, cumulative changes to the environment, habitats, and harvest regimes for many of these subpopulations are without historical precedent, such that it would be risky to assume there will be a naturally occurring recovery, at least to numbers recorded in the 1990s, for many of the subpopulations.

Threats and limiting factors

Climate and weather influence other limiting factors important for Barren-ground Caribou, including forage availability, predation, parasites and diseases – in complex non-linear and cascading ways. So many aspects of caribou ecology are affected by weather that a warmer climate could have a significant but complicated suite of positive and negative effects.

Industrial exploration and development in Barren-ground Caribou ranges has increased over the past several decades, such that there are several new mines and hundreds of prospecting permits, mineral claims and mineral leases on several subpopulation ranges. Subsistence and sport harvest can be significant causes of mortality that can increase the rate of decline and lead to a lower population size after populations have been reduced for other reasons. Chemical contaminant levels in tissues are generally low at present. The changing conditions on the caribou ranges also include the administrative and political complexity of a mix of settled and unsettled land claims, with changes in jurisdictional boundaries and mandates. The implementation of management actions is challenged by the inter-jurisdictional complexity between political, land management and wildlife management agencies, combined with the migratory nature of caribou and their use of extensive seasonal ranges.

Protection, status, and ranks

Protection of Barren-ground Caribou subpopulations by territorial and provincial jurisdictions is through harvest regulation and habitat protection. The co-management regime is a shared management responsibility among governments and bodies established through land claim legislation and through renewable multi-jurisdictional agreements among public governments (for the Porcupine, Beverly and Qamanirjuaq subpopulations). The Porcupine Caribou subpopulation is the only subpopulation of Barren-ground Caribou covered by an international agreement signed between Canada and the United States in 1987. The Barren-ground Caribou designatable unit (DU) was assessed for the first time by COSEWIC as Threatened in November 2016. It is currently not scheduled under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). The 2015 national general status for Caribou in Canada will not be available until the 2015 General Status Report is published August 2017. This Canada-wide rank will apply to all DUs of Caribou combined, with nothing specific to Barren-ground Caribou. The 2015 territorial rank for Yukon for Barren-ground Caribou is Vulnerable to Apparently Secure, and for Northwest Territories is Sensitive. At present, there is no specific rank for Barren-ground Caribou for Nunavut; however, for all DUs combined, the territory-specific general status rank for Caribou in Nunavut is Apparently Secure. Federal protected areas that exclude industrial land uses but allow continued subsistence hunting cover about 6% of Barren-ground Caribou ranges, including eight national parks.

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