Species Profile

Caribou Atlantic-Gaspésie population

Scientific Name: Rangifer tarandus
Other/Previous Names: Woodland Caribou (Atlantic-Gaspésie population)
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
Range: Quebec
Last COSEWIC Assessment: November 2014
Last COSEWIC Designation: Endangered
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Endangered


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Quick Links: | Taxonomy | Photo | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | Recovery Initiatives | Recovery Team | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Caribou

Caribou Photo 1

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Taxonomy

There is some uncertainty about how different groups of caribou are related to each other. Technological advances in genetic analysis have clarified some issues, but studies are ongoing. In the meantime, caribou are classified by ecotype (where they occur and how they behave) for their management and conservation. There are three major types of caribou in Canada: Peary, Barren-ground, and Woodland. The Caribou dawsoni subspecies, traditionally grouped with the Woodland Caribou, is extinct. Results of recent research indicate that the caribou in the Dolphin and Union herd are unique. They resemble large Peary Caribou, but appear to be more closely related genetically to Barren-ground Caribou. Peary Caribou, the smallest, lightest-coloured, and least understood of the three races, are found only on the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. They have access to a vast area of land, but only a limited portion contains suitable habitat. Barren-ground Caribou, slightly larger and darker, are found for much or all of the year on the tundra from Alaska to Baffin Island. They are by far the most abundant caribou; some herds in northern Canada number in the hundreds of thousands. They migrate seasonally, often along predictable routes, to the sparsely treed northern coniferous forests. Woodland Caribou, the largest and darkest-coloured, are irregularly distributed throughout our boreal forest and mountains from the island of Newfoundland to British Columbia. They are not migratory, but some herds, especially those in mountainous regions, move to different elevations with the seasons.

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Description

Caribou, ancient members of the deer family (Cervidae), are one of Canada’s most widely distributed large mammals. The name caribou is probably a corruption of the Micmac name “xalibu” — which means “the one who paws.” Caribou are unique among Cervids in that both sexes have antlers; however, some females have only one antler or lack them altogether. The antlers grow so rapidly that an adult male may show velvety lumps on his head in March and have a rack more than a metre in length by August. By February, all the caribou have lost their antlers. The Woodland Caribou’s coat is mostly brown in summer (more grey in winter), but the neck, mane, shoulder stripe, underbelly, underside of the tail, and patch just above each hoof are creamy white. The caribou is 1.0 to 1.2 m high at the shoulder, and mature individuals weigh 110 to 210 kg. The average weight for bulls is 180 kg; for cows, it is 135 kg. The antlers of the Woodland Caribou are flattened, complex, and compact relative to those of the Barren-ground Caribou.

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Distribution and Population

Woodland Caribou occur in five of the eight National Ecological Areas recognized by COSEWIC, and in all jurisdictions in Canada except Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nunavut. The Northern Mountain population is comprised of 36 local populations in Yukon, Northwest Territories, and northwestern British Columbia. The Southern Mountain population is made up of 26 local populations in British Columbia and 4 in Alberta. The Boreal population covers a huge area from the Mackenzie Mountains in the northwest to southern Labrador in the east and as far south as Lake Superior. In Newfoundland, the Woodland Caribou can be found in 15 natural and 22 introduced local populations — both on the main island and on islands offshore. The Atlantic-Gaspésie population in Quebec is the only caribou herd that remains south of the St. Lawrence River. It is largely restricted to the summits of Mont Albert and Mont Jacques-Cartier in Parc de la Gaspésie on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. The small, isolated Atlantic-Gaspésie population declined from an estimated 500 to 1000 individuals in the 1950s to about 200 in the 1970s. The population stabilized between 200 and 250 caribou through the 1990s, with an average of 20 to 25 per 100 km2 in 1996. A report from 2001 however, indicates that the population may be declining.

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Habitat

In winter, Woodland Caribou use mature and old-growth coniferous forests that contain large quantities of terrestrial and arboreal (tree-inhabiting) lichens. These forests are generally associated with marshes, bogs, lakes, and rivers. In summer, the caribou occasionally feed in young stands, after fire or logging. The average interval for habitats to return to their pre-fire state ranges from 40 to 80 years in the southern boreal forest in Alberta and Saskatchewan to 200 to 350 years in British Columbia. Studies of the Woodland Caribou Atlantic-Gaspésie population revealed that mature fir and White Spruce cover in the subalpine range was important winter habitat, and that the tundra of Mont Albert and Mont Jacques-Cartier was part of their critical summer habitat.

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Biology

The caribou is well adapted to its environment. It has a compact body, small ears, and a short tail — even the muzzle is covered in short hairs to protect it from the snow and cold air. The caribou‘s coat consists of a fine crimped under-fur with a thick layer of guard hairs on top. The guard hairs are hollow (like straws), and the air trapped inside acts as insulation to keep in the caribou's body heat. Caribou are excellent swimmers, and the hollow hairs help them to be buoyant in the water as well. Caribou have large feet with four toes. In addition to two small ones, called "dew claws," they have two large, crescent-shaped toes that support most of their weight and serve as shovels when digging for food under snow. These large concave hooves offer stable support on wet, soggy ground and on crusty snow. The pads of the hoof change from a thick, fleshy shape in the summer to become hard and thin in the winter months, reducing the animal’s exposure to the cold ground. Additional winter protection comes from the long hair between the "toes"; it covers the pads so the caribou walks only on the horny rim of the hooves. The rut, or mating period, for caribou usually occurs in late September and the first half of October. Caribou cows begin breeding as early as 16 months of age; most breed annually by the time they are 28 months old, typically giving birth to a single calf the following spring (mid-May to mid-June). The males may theoretically breed at 18 to 20 months of age, but most probably have no opportunity before their third or fourth year. During the rut, males engage in frequent and furious sparring battles with their antlers. Large males with large antlers do most of the mating. To calve, females travel to isolated, relatively predator-free areas such as islands in lakes, peatlands, lakeshores, or tundra. Group size is lowest during calving and in summer; it increases before the rut and may decline or increase over the winter. Group size at all seasons is larger for forest-tundra caribou than forest-dwelling caribou. Survival rates for calves average between 30% and 50%, but can vary from almost none to 100%. Many factors interact to determine calf survival, including quality and quantity of forage (for pregnant females and in the first year of life), number of predators, and weather. The potential for very high survival means that it is possible for local populations to increase rapidly when conditions are favourable. Caribou are grazing animals and feed on whatever plant material is available. Most feeding takes place in the morning and late evening, with periods of rest at midday and midnight. Caribou are the only large mammals that are able to use lichens as a primary source of food. They have specialized bacteria and protozoa in their stomachs that efficiently digest the lichens, allowing them to take advantage of this rich food source that is available during the winter when other foods are scarce. They also have an excellent sense of smell that helps them to locate lichens beneath snow. Caribou are preyed upon by wolves, bears, coyotes, cougar, and lynx, and are hunted by people. Caribou are constantly on the move. As a result, predators and parasites cannot predict where they will be found, and lichen ranges are not overused or trampled.

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Threats

The Woodland Caribou Atlantic-Gaspésie population is completely isolated from other caribou. Low population numbers make it vulnerable to catastrophic events and inbreeding depression (loss of vigour resulting from mating between closely related individuals). The amount of habitat is limited — when ice and snow conditions are extreme there is nowhere else to go to look for food. This population of Woodland Caribou is also threatened by predation (by coyotes and bears), human disturbance, fire, and climate change.

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Protection

Federal Protection

The Caribou, Atlantic-Gaspésie population, is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

The Woodland Caribou Atlantic-Gaspésie population is protected by the Quebec Act Respecting Threatened or Vulnerable Species. Under this Act it is prohibited to possess, trade or harm this species or disturb its habitat. This population occurs entirely within Gaspésie Provincial Park.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Recovery Initiatives

Status of Recovery Planning

Recovery Strategies :

Name Gaspésie Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan (2002-2012) (Rangifer tarandus caribou)
Status Final posting on SAR registry

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Recovery Team

CWS-Quebec Species at Risk Recovery Unit

  • Unité du rétablissement des espèces en péril du SCF-QC - Chair/Contact -
    Phone: 1-855-253-6708  Send Email

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Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

7 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Caribou Rangifer tarandus, Newfoundland population, Atlantic-Gaspésie population, Boreal population in Canada (2015)

    Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are a medium-sized member of the deer family with relatively long legs and large hooves, which facilitate survival in northern environments. Caribou are central to the culture, spirituality, and subsistence lifestyles of many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities across Canada. Caribou exhibit tremendous variability in morphology, ecology, and behaviour across their circumpolar range. In 2011, COSEWIC recognized 12 designatable units (DUs); this report assesses three DUs: Newfoundland population (NP; DU5); Atlantic-Gaspésie population (GP; DU11); and Boreal population (BP; DU6).
  • COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the woodland caribou Rangifer tarandus caribou in Canada (2002)

    Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are medium-sized (100-250 kg) members of the deer family. The taxonomy (classification) and systematics (evolutionary history) of caribou in Canada are uncertain. Based on mitochondrial DNA, caribou in North America evolved from two founding groups (clades) that differentiated in isolation during the last (Wisconsinan) glaciation. The southern clade supposedly evolved south of the continental ice sheet, whereas the northern clade was in a glacial refugium in Alaska and adjacent Arctic Canada. Populations that contained unique southern gene types were the Pukaskwa local population in Ontario and two in Newfoundland. In contrast, exclusively northern types occurred in four Yukon populations and in some forest-tundra and tundra ecotypes of barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus) in northern Canada. Most woodland caribou populations in the mountains of southern British Columbia (B.C.) and Alberta and in the boreal forest and taiga across Canada are mixtures of the two types. Some 'mixed' populations in the taiga exhibit two phenotypes and behave like the forest-tundra ecotype of barren-ground caribou.

COSEWIC Assessments

  • COSEWIC Assessment - Woodland Caribou (2002)

    Atlantic-Gaspésie population was designated as Threatened in April 1984. Status re-examined and uplisted to Endangered in May 2000. Status re-examined and confirmed in May 2002. Last assesment based on an update status report. Boreal population was designated Threatened in May 2000. This newly defined population is comprised of a portion of the de-activated "Western population" and all of the de-activated "Labrador-Ungava population". Status re-examined and confirmed in May 2002. Last assessment based on an update status report. Southern Mountain population was designated Threatened in May 2000. This population was formerly designated as part of the "Western population" (now de-activated). Status re-examined and confirmed in May 2002. Last assessment based on an update status report. Northern Mountain population was designated Not at Risk in May 2000. This population was formerly designated as part of the "Western population" (now de-activated). Status re-examined and uplisted to Special Concern in May 2002. Last assessment based on an update status report. Newfoundland population designated Not at Risk in April 1984. Status re-examined and confirmed in May 2000 and in May 2002. Last assessment based on an update status report.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Caribou, Atlantic-Gaspésie population (2015)

    This small isolated population has declined to fewer than 120 adults. Historically, these caribou were much more widely spread, occurring in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Today, they mainly use alpine habitats on mountain plateaus in the Gaspésie region, in Quebec. Habitat has been modified by resource development, including forest management that reduced forest age, and increased density of predators of caribou. Adult mortality and continued low calf recruitment due to Eastern Coyote and Black Bear predation are contributing to an ongoing decline. Population models predict the population may become extinct by 2056.
  • Response Statements - Woodland Caribou (2004)

    A response statement is a communications document that identifies how the Minister of the Environment intends to respond to the assessment of a wildlife species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The document provides a start to the listing and recovery process for those species identified as being at risk, and provides timelines for action to the extent possible.

Recovery Strategies

  • Gaspésie Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan (2002-2012) (Rangifer tarandus caribou) (2007)

    The distribution of the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) has declined considerably since the middle of the 19th century. In eastern North America, the Gaspésie population is now the only Woodland Caribou herd to be found south of the St. Lawrence River. This relict and genetically distinct population is in a very precarious situation, and was designated as an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), in May 2002. In September 2001, the Quebec government classified the species and its habitat as vulnerable. In the spirit of cooperation of the Accord, the Government of Québec has given permission to the Government of Canada to adopt the Gaspésie Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan (2002-2012) (Rangifer tarandus caribou) under Section 44 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Environment Canada has added an addendum which completes the SARA requirements for this recovery strategy.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2014-2015 (2015)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to "assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species". COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings in this reporting year (October, 2014 to September, 2015) from November 23 to November 28, 2014 and from April 27 to May 1, 2015. During the current reporting period, COSEWIC assessed the status or reviewed the classification of 56 wildlife species. The wildlife species assessment results for the 2014-2015 reporting period include the following: Extinct: 0 Extirpated: 1 Endangered: 21 Threatened: 11 Special Concern: 21 Data Deficient: 1 Not at Risk: 1 Total: 56 Of the 56 wildlife species examined, COSEWIC reviewed the classification of 40 that had been previously assessed. The review of classification for 24 of those wildlife species resulted in a confirmation of the same risk status as the previous assessment.