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Working Together to Recover Boreal Caribou

Environment Canada is consulting with Canadians to gather information to help develop a national recovery strategy for boreal caribou in Canada. We are looking for your input.


Document information

Document information

Photo of three Caribou

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Working together to recover boreal caribou [electronic resource].

Issued also in French under title: Le rétablissement du caribou boréal, un effort collectif.
Type of computer file: Electronic monograph in PDF format.
ISBN 978-1-100-14726-0
Cat no.: En14-16/2010E-PDF

1. Woodland caribou--Canada.  2. Wildlife recovery--Canada.  3. Woodland caribou--Habitat--Canada.  I. Canada. Environment Canada

QL737 U55 W67 2010    333.95’9658    C2010-980034-6

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Boreal caribou – a species at risk

The woodland caribou (boreal population) was listed as a threatened species in Canada when the Species at Risk Act (SARA) came into force in June 2003. This listing was based on an assessment made by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 2002. The reasons for assessing boreal caribou as threatened were that populations have decreased throughout most of the range and are threatened by habitat loss and increased predation, the latter possibly facilitated by human activities.

Boreal Caribou

Woodland caribou (boreal population) and boreal caribou are two names referring to the same animal. We are using “boreal caribou” here for ease of reading.

Photograph of an adult Woodland Caribou walking in the snow - Woodland caribou (boreal population) and boreal caribou are two names referring to the same animal. We are using “boreal caribou” here for ease of reading. Copyright: John A. Nagy.
© John A. Nagy

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Responsibilities for boreal caribou

Responsibility for the conservation of species at risk in Canada is shared between the federal and provincial/territorial governments. The provinces and territories are responsible for most wildlife species (including the boreal caribou) and for the management of provincial and territorial lands upon which many species at risk rely. The federal government exercises direct responsibility for aquatic species, migratory birds and species found on federal lands such as national parks. Conservation of species at risk therefore requires a collaborative approach that coordinates responsibilities and activities across all jurisdictions.

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What is the Species at Risk Act?

The Species at Risk Act is a federal law that protects plants and animals that are in danger of disappearing from the wild in Canada. The purposes of the Act are to:

  • prevent wildlife species from becoming extinct in Canada;

  • recover wildlife species at risk; and

  • manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.

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Recovery strategy for the boreal caribou

Under SARA, a national recovery strategy must be developed for a threatened species. It is a planning document that:

  • describes the species and its needs;

  • identifies threats to the species and its habitat;

  • sets out population and distribution objectives for the species’ recovery;

  • identifies a species’ critical habitat, which is the habitat needed for its survival or recovery, and/or outlines a schedule of studies to identify critical habitat; and

  • outlines broad approaches to stop or reverse the decline of a species.

Given that the provinces and territories are responsible for the management of boreal caribou, many have developed, or are in the process of developing, recovery strategies and/or management plans for their jurisdiction. A national recovery strategy will build on this expertise and provide a nationally consistent framework for boreal caribou management and recovery across Canada. Environment Canada will work with the provinces and territories to develop the national recovery strategy and coordinate with ongoing recovery activities.

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What caribou are we talking about?

All caribou are considered to be a single species (Rangifer tarandus) despite having different appearances, behaviours and habitats across their North American range. There are several ways of classifying this remarkable diversity among caribou. This document uses the same classification system that is used by COSEWIC. Under this classification system, five subspecies of caribou (including one that is extinct) are recognized in Canada. These subspecies are:

  1. Peary caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) are found only in the High Arctic islands of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. They are the smallest of the four existing subspecies of caribou.

  2. Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) live on the Arctic tundra from western Northwest Territories to Baffin Island, Nunavut. They are the most abundant caribou in Canada and are generally found in large herds that migrate great distances seasonally.

  3. Grant’s caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) are found mainly in the Yukon and Alaska. This subspecies includes the Porcupine caribou herd with which many people are familiar.

  4. Dawson’s caribou (Rangifer tarandus dawsoni) is an extinct subspecies of caribou whose distribution was limited to the islands of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. The last verified record was in 1908.

  5. Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are found across Canada in forested mountain and boreal regions, and are the largest of the four existing subspecies of caribou. For the most part, woodland caribou in boreal regions do not migrate great distances. They spend most of the year within the forest, either living alone or in small groups. However, some woodland caribou do undergo significant seasonal migrations, including those living in mountain regions and in the far northern areas of Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Labrador.

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Photograph of an adult Woodland Caribou standing on the forest edge. Copyright: Elston Dzus.
Woodland Caribou (includes boreal caribou) - © Elston Dzus

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Photograph of a large herd of migrating Caribou. Copyright: A. Gunn GNWT.
Barren-ground Caribou and Grant’s Caribou migrate in large herds
- © A. Gunn GNWT

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Photograph of two Peary Caribou - a mother and her calf. Copyright: A. Gunn GNWT.
Peary Caribou - © John A. Nagy

COSEWIC has assessed five different populations of the woodland caribou subspecies in Canada. This document focuses specifically on the boreal population of the woodland caribou (i.e., boreal caribou). Other populations of woodland caribou assessed by COSEWIC, including the Atlantic–Gaspésie population, the Newfoundland population, the northern mountain population, and the southern mountain population, are not part of this recovery planning process (see Map 1).

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Illustration of an adult Woodland Caribou. Copyright: Judie Shore.
© Judie Shore

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Description of the boreal caribou

Caribou are medium-sized members of the deer family, which includes four other species of deer native to Canada: moose, white-tailed deer, mule deer and elk (wapiti). Both male and female caribou have antlers for part of the year, which is unique among the deer family. Adult boreal caribou have a dark brown coat with a creamy white neck, mane and rump. They have large crescent-shaped hooves that give the animal a firm footing on snow and soft ground, and allow it to paw through the snow to feed on lichens and other vegetation. Boreal caribou have thicker, broader antlers, and longer legs and faces than the barren-ground caribou.

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Where are boreal caribou found?

Boreal caribou are found in the boreal forest region of seven provinces and two territories. The distribution of boreal caribou is shown on Map 1. Boreal caribou occur only in Canada.

Map 1. Current distribution of the five populations of woodland caribou in Canada that have been assessed by COSEWIC. The current distribution of boreal caribou is shown in green. The estimated southern extent of historical caribou distribution is indicated by the dashed line.

Map showing current distribution of Woodland Caribou in Canada.  Distribution of the boreal population of Woodland Caribou is shown across the boreal forest region of seven provinces and two territories.

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Habitat needs

Boreal caribou are adapted to an ever-changing forest ecosystem in which forest fires are the main cause of natural disturbance and habitat change. In order to thrive, boreal caribou need:

  • large areas of suitable habitat;

  • low levels of human disturbance; and

  • low numbers of predators, such as wolves and bears.

In general, suitable habitat for boreal caribou includes mature to old-growth upland and lowland conifer forests and peatlands. Terrestrial lichens are common winter food for boreal caribou and are generally abundant in these habitats. During snow-free times of the year, boreal caribou feed on a wider array of plants including grasses, lichens and other ground cover.

Boreal caribou require large, continuous areas of habitat to allow individuals to spread out across their range. By spreading out across the landscape, caribou avoid contact with predators. Boreal caribou also reduce their contact with predators by avoiding habitat favoured by deer and moose, which are the preferred food of large predators. This includes avoidance of cleared areas and habitats dominated by shrubs.

Arial photograph of a small group of Woodland Caribou walking in the snow. Copyright: Government of the Northwest Territories
© Government of the Northwest Territories

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Photograph of a small group of Woodland Caribou standing by a body of water. Copyright: Shane P. Mahoney
© Shane P. Mahoney

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Environment Canada would like to hear from you about boreal caribou habitat needs, including information such as:

  • What areas are especially important to boreal caribou in your region?

  • How do boreal caribou use these areas? At different times of the day? Season? Year?

  • What types of plants and features of the land do boreal caribou use?

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What are the threats to boreal caribou and its habitat?

There are many threats that directly and/or indirectly affect local populations of boreal caribou and their habitat, including:

  • habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation;

  • predation, mainly by wolves and bears;

  • over-harvesting (hunting, poaching);

  • noise and light disturbance (from forestry; oil, gas and mining operations; low-level aircraft flights; use of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles);

  • parasites and disease; and

  • changes in weather and climate.

Photograph of an all-terrain vehicle parked across a line cut through the boreal forest. Copyright: Applied Ecosystem Management 1999 (Photo: R. Anderson and K. Kranrod)
© Applied Ecosystem Management 1999 (Photo: R. Anderson and K. Kranrod)

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The main threat to boreal caribou is unnaturally high predation rates as a result of habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation (the breaking up of continuous habitat into smaller pieces). These habitat alterations impact boreal caribou in many ways. Firstly, the clearing of forests and building of roads for industrial activities reduces the amount and quality of habitat available in which the boreal caribou can live and reproduce. In addition, these activities often lead to an increase in area of young forests, favouring species such as deer, moose and elk, which then increase in number. This increase in the number of deer, moose or elk in turn supports a higher number of predators, such as wolves. Finally, large-scale habitat alterations can also affect boreal caribou by making it easier for predators such as wolves to move across the landscape and prey on caribou. The resulting increase in predation can have a serious impact on boreal caribou, causing their populations to decline.

The other threats listed above are not usually the main factors affecting boreal caribou, although some are important in specific areas. Understanding the threats facing boreal caribou in your area is crucial to identifying effective actions to recover or maintain local populations.

Environment Canada is looking for your input on threats that are negatively affecting boreal caribou and what might be done to reduce the impact of those threats, including answers to questions such as:

  • Are there any threats that exist in your region that we have not identified?

  • Which threats stand out to you as having the most impact upon boreal caribou in your region? Why?

  • What activities or measures have been used, or could be used, to reduce the impact of these threats?

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Population and distribution objectives for the boreal caribou

A recovery strategy sets out population and distribution objectives for a species’ recovery. The purpose of setting population and distribution objectives is to establish clear and measurable targets for a species’ recovery. Having clear and measurable targets provides clear direction for actions and increases the chances of successfully recovering the species.

For boreal caribou, the following population and distribution objectives are being used as a basis for discussion during consultations:

  1. to maintain existing local populations that are self-sustaining; and

  2. to increase local populations that are not currently self-sustaining, to the extent possible, in all the provinces and territories where boreal caribou currently live.

Photograph of a Woodland Caribou calf. Copyright: Shane P. Mahoney
© Shane P. Mahoney

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What does it mean for a population to be self-sustaining?

A population that:

  • is stable or growing (more births than deaths);

  • is large enough to withstand random events (e.g., severe weather) and human-caused pressures;

  • no longer needs recovery actions, although ongoing management of activities (e.g., industrial development, harvest) that affect boreal caribou will be required; and

  • persists over the long term.

Photograph of two Woodland Caribou running in the snow. Copyright: John A. Nagy
© John A. Nagy

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Environment Canada would like to hear your opinions on these population and distribution objectives:

  • Do you believe boreal caribou populations can be maintained at, or improved to, a level that is self-sustaining in your area? And throughout their current distribution?

  • What could be done to achieve this?

  • What are the challenges to achieving this?

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Critical habitat for boreal caribou?

Environment Canada is committed to developing a national recovery strategy for boreal caribou that includes the identification of critical habitat to the extent possible. Considerable information exists about boreal caribou habitat requirements; however, Environment Canada does not have enough information to identify critical habitat for the boreal caribou. The information that you provide will help inform the identification of critical habitat for boreal caribou. The information collected on boreal caribou habitat needs and the population and distribution objectives will be particularly important for critical habitat identification.

The purpose of identifying critical habitat is to ensure that it is protected from human activities that would result in its destruction. Once critical habitat is identified, the federal government must protect the portions of critical habitat that occur on federal lands. In addition, under SARA, the provinces and territories must provide effective protection for those portions of critical habitat that occur on non-federal lands. Protection may take a variety of forms, for example, prohibiting activities, implementing habitat management plans and establishing stewardship agreements.

In order to assist in the determination of what constitutes critical habitat for boreal caribou, Environment Canada undertook a scientific review of boreal caribou habitat needs. The review focused on the habitat needed for local populations of boreal caribou to be self-sustaining. To complete the task, experts in caribou biology and landscape ecology worked together to provide scientific advice on the critical habitat needs of boreal caribou. This advice was published in the Scientific Review for the Identification of Critical Habitat for Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal Population, in Canada. This review is available by contacting Environment Canada or visiting the Species at Risk Public Registry website. A brief summary of the findings from the Scientific Review is also available at the Species at Risk Public Registry website.

Some of the key conclusions from the Scientific Review include:

  • Critical habitat for boreal caribou would most appropriately be identified by taking into account all the habitat needs of caribou across the entire range of each local population rather than focusing only on the habitat needs for a particular part of the life cycle or time of the year such as calving or wintering.

  • Boreal caribou need very large tracts of land with naturally low numbers of predators, in addition to requiring specific areas to carry out their life cycle (feeding, calving, rearing young, wintering, etc.). Management at the scale of the range will help ensure that the space and habitat characteristics they require are maintained.

  • Activities can occur within boreal caribou habitat without threatening the species, as long as their cumulative effects do not destroy the biological and physical attributes necessary for boreal caribou survival and recovery. The Scientific Review outlined some of these attributes, and further scientific work is ongoing to provide more detail on the specific habitat needs of caribou as well as the level and type of disturbance that can occur within a range and still maintain a self-sustaining population of boreal caribou.

The results of the Scientific Review, further scientific work, and knowledge of boreal caribou held by Aboriginal peoples, provincial and territorial governments, and other interested or affected parties, will be used to inform the identification of boreal caribou critical habitat under SARA.

Arial photograph of a small group of Woodland Caribou moving through an opening in the forest. Copyright: A. Chabot
© A. Chabot

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Developing the national recovery strategy for boreal caribou

Environment Canada will develop the national recovery strategy for boreal caribou by:

  1. Consulting with provincial and territorial departments responsible for conservation and natural resource management, Aboriginal governments, organizations and communities, land managers, environmental organizations, industry, and other affected parties to gather information on key elements of the national recovery strategy.

  2. Ensuring Aboriginal traditional knowledge about boreal caribou informs the national recovery strategy.

  3. Conducting scientific studies on boreal caribou habitat needs.

  4. Drafting the national recovery strategy in collaboration with provinces, territories and Aboriginal representatives from wildlife management boards that are authorized by a land claims agreement to perform functions in respect of wildlife species. The national recovery strategy will be informed by the consultations, Aboriginal traditional knowledge and the scientific studies on boreal caribou habitat needs.

  5. Establishing advisory groups, with representatives from environmental organizations, industry and national Aboriginal organizations, to review the draft recovery strategy and provide input and advice to the drafting team.

  6. Posting the proposed national recovery strategy on the Species at Risk Public Registry in the summer of 2011 for a 60-day comment period.

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Please visit the Species at Risk Public Registry
to submit comments on the key elements of a national recovery strategy for boreal caribou, please visit the Species at Risk Public Registry
contact the Environment Canada Inquiry Centre at:
write to us at:
Manager, Recovery Management Section
Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada
351 St. Joseph Boulevard, 4th Floor
Gatineau QC  K1A 0H3