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Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou, Southern Mountain population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada - 2014 [Final]

Executive Summary

This recovery strategy is for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Southern Mountain population herein referred to as "southern mountain caribou”, assessed in May 2002 as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Southern mountain caribou occur in the southern two-thirds of British Columbia (BC) and in west-central Alberta, with one subpopulation ranging into northern Idaho and Washington in the United States.

In this recovery strategy, the geographic area occupied by a subpopulation is referred to as a range. Southern mountain caribou subpopulations and their ranges have been defined based on extensive studies of movements and seasonal habitat use of radio-collared caribou. In some areas, subpopulations have been organized into "local population units” (LPUs), which reflect likely larger historical subpopulations that have declined in number and become fragmented into the currently recognized subpopulations.

Southern mountain caribou are currently distributed across 38 subpopulations, comprising 24 LPUs. Most subpopulations have undergone long-term declines in numbers. The current overall number of southern mountain caribou is estimated to be approximately 5,800. In this recovery strategy, three groups of southern mountain caribou are recognized based on ecological and evolutionary distinctions between them: the Northern Group in west-central and north-central BC; the Central Group in east-central BC and west-central Alberta; and, the Southern Group in southeastern BC.

Southern mountain caribou occupy ranges consisting of highly diverse topography, terrain types, and environmental conditions. They require large ranges of relatively undisturbed, interconnected habitat where they can separate themselves (horizontally and by elevation) from predators; modify their use of habitat in response to various natural and human-caused habitat disturbances and human activities; and can access their preferred food sources. During winter, southern mountain caribou require large patches of mature and old forests with abundant lichens.

In the Southern Group, where the snowpack is deep, caribou predominantly use high elevation mature and old subalpine forests in mid and late winter where they forage on arboreal lichens. During early winter before snow has consolidated, and during spring, they use lower elevation mature and old forests (with some subpopulations moving down into cedar/hemlock forests in valley bottoms).

In the Central and Northern groups, caribou live in relatively shallow snow areas where they forage primarily on terrestrial lichens either in low elevation mature coniferous forests or on windswept alpine slopes during winter. They also forage on arboreal lichens in low elevation forests, forested wetlands, and in subalpine habitats. Many subpopulations in the Northern and Central Groups travel long distances between winter and summer ranges, while others winter and summer within the same general area. Most southern mountain caribou calve in high elevation habitats.

Southern mountain caribou also require ‘matrix’ range. Type 1 matrix range consists of areas within an LPU’s annual range that have not been delineated as summer or winter range, and may include seasonal migration areas and areas of lower use compared to delineated seasonal ranges. Type 2 matrix range consists of areas surrounding annual ranges where predator/prey dynamics influence caribou predation rates within the subpopulation's annual range. Type 2 matrix range may also include areas with trace occurrences of caribou, dispersal zones between subpopulations, and dispersal zones between LPUs.

Due to the specific life history characteristics they possess, southern mountain caribou are limited in their potential to recover from rapid, severe population declines. Habitat alteration (i.e., habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation) from both human-caused and natural sources, and increased predation as a result of habitat alteration, have led to declining numbers throughout their distribution. Threats are closely interrelated and act together to have direct or indirect impacts on southern mountain caribou and their habitat. Recovery of all southern mountain caribou LPUs has been determined to be technically and biologically feasible.

This recovery strategy sets overall population targets based on recent capacity of annual ranges to support caribou, with those targets being: 4,600 caribou for the Northern Group, 2,000 caribou for the Central Group, and 2,500 caribou for the Southern Group – a total of 9,100 caribou. This represents a more than 50% increase in numbers from the current total population estimate.

The recovery goal for southern mountain caribou is to achieve self-sustaining populations in all LPUs within their current distribution. Achieving the recovery goal should result in sufficiently large local caribou populations to support traditional Aboriginal harvesting activities, consistent with existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples of Canada. Realizing this recovery goal for all LPUs will take a number of decades, especially for LPUs where levels of disturbance are high.

To guide recovery efforts, the population and distribution objectives are, to the extent possible, to:

  • stop the decline in both size and distribution of all LPUs;
  • maintain the current distribution within each LPU; and
  • increase the size of all LPUs to self-sustaining levels and, where appropriate and attainable, to levels which can sustain a harvest with dedicated or priority access to aboriginal peoples.

Performance indicators are identified as a means by which progress towards achieving the population and distribution objectives can be measured.

Critical habitat necessary to achieve the population and distribution objectives for southern mountain caribou is partially identified in this recovery strategy for all LPUs. Critical habitat for southern mountain caribou is identified as the habitat possessing those biophysical attributes required by southern mountain caribou to carry out life processes and which is found within:

  • the high elevation winter and/or summer (spring, calving, summer, fall/rut) range delimited by the LPU boundaries for all Groups;
  • the low elevation summer (spring, calving, summer, fall/rut) range delimited by the LPU boundaries for the Northern Group;
  • the low elevation early winter and/or spring range delimited by the LPU boundaries for the Southern Group;
  • the LPU boundaries of the Northern and Central Groups, which provides for an overall ecological condition for low elevation winter range and Type 1 matrix range that will allow for an ongoing recruitment and retirement cycle of habitat, which maintains a perpetual state of a minimum of 65% of the area as undisturbed; and,
  • Type 2 matrix range for all Groups, and Type 1 matrix range for the Southern Group that provides for an overall ecological condition that will allow for low predation risk, defined as wolf population densities less than 3 wolves/1000 km².

The threshold of a minimum of 65% undisturbed area within low elevation winter range and Type 1 matrix range is taken from analyses undertaken for boreal caribou ranges. While this approach can be considered as use of best available information, a schedule of studies is included in this strategy to acquire information specific to southern mountain caribou to determine the level of undisturbed habitat in seasonal and matrix ranges that are required to sustain recruitment and reduce adult mortality.

The recovery of southern mountain caribou requires actions that will vary according to both the habitat and population conditions within each LPU. This recovery strategy provides broad strategies and general approaches to achieve the population and distribution objectives, which will assist in the development of subsequent action plans.

As required by SARA, the Minister of the Environment and the Minister Responsible for the Parks Canada Agency will complete one or more action plans under this recovery strategy, which will be included on the Species at Risk Public Registry by December 31, 2017.

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