An iconic Canadian speciesWith its distinctive tall and flat antlers, the caribou is one of Canada’s most recognizable species, inhabiting the Arctic as well as boreal and mountain regions. Male caribou are called bulls and weigh around 150kg, while females are called cows and weigh around 90kg.
These stately members of the deer family were once one of Canada’s most widespread wildlife species, found in over 80% of the country. Today though, their numbers are dropping dramatically—for many herds by more than 90%.
Caribou... Or reindeer?Caribou and reindeer are actually one and the same. “Reindeer” is the name given to caribou in Scandinavia and Russia, but caribou and reindeer are the same species (Rangifer tarandus), wherever they are found in the world.
Why are caribou important?
For peopleAcross their range, caribou are an essential resource to Indigenous peoples. Northern communities have an intimate relationship with caribou herds, and have relied on them as a source of traditional food and clothing for millennia. With such a strong interest in the persistence of caribou, and as the only people living among the most northern caribou herds, northern communities are essential partners in caribou conservation projects.
- When caribou forage on vegetation in the summer, they change decomposition and nutrients of the tundra soil. Their droppings add nitrogen to the soil and water.
- Caribou are an important prey species for many carnivores in the Arctic, including wolves and brown bears.
What are the threats to caribou?Caribou populations fluctuate dramatically under natural conditions. When faced with external threats, their numbers can drop to dangerous levels and may fail to recover from natural population lows. There are multiple cumulative environmental and human-caused stressors that are contributing to Peary and barren-ground caribou decline.
- Climate change is altering the habitat of Arctic caribou, increasing the presence of biting flies in the summer, and creating irregular icing events in the winter that prevent caribou from accessing their food.
- Increased mining exploration and development across their ranges put caribou herds under pressure, with the most significant risk of habitat loss and disturbance occurring when industrial development occurs on their calving grounds.
- Harvest management during times of low abundance is challenging due to the difficulty in assessing the status of populations and a lack of reported harvest information.
- Absence of effective land-use planning. Most Arctic caribou are migratory, and their habitat crosses territorial and provincial borders. As the climate changes, and migration patterns shift, it will be increasingly important for governments to implement plans that support wildlife and ecosystems.
What is WWF doing?
- Working with northern communities in the Arctic by providing resources and expertise to ensure that community viewpoints on conservation issues are heard in decision-making processes impacting caribou habitat.
- Promoting the protection of barren-ground caribou calving areas through our inputs into land use plans, by intervening in regulatory processes on specific development projects that threaten caribou, and through partnerships with companies prepared to voluntarily surrender mineral leases in key caribou habitats.
- Helping fund research on barren-ground caribou to monitor the population status of herds and understand the effects of industrial development on caribou and their habitat.
- Studying the Last Ice Area, one of WWF’s flagship Arctic initiatives, to help protect Peary caribou habitat, particularly sea ice crossings used for migration between islands.