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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.
Boreal caribou – a species at risk
Responsibilities for boreal caribou
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.
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.
Boreal Caribou
Woodland caribou (boreal
population) and boreal caribou
What is the Species at Risk Act?
are two names referring to the
same animal. We are using “boreal
caribou” here for ease of reading.
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
© John A. Nagy
• prevent wildlife species from becoming extinct in
• recover wildlife species at risk; and
• manage species of special concern to prevent
them from becoming endangered or threatened.
Working Together to Recover Boreal Caribou
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.
Recovery strategy for the boreal caribou
Under SARA, a national recovery strategy must be developed for a threatened species. It is a planning document
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.
• 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.
© Elston Dzus
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.
Woodland Caribou (includes boreal caribou)
What caribou are we talking about?
© A. Gunn GNWT
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:
Barren-ground Caribou and Grant’s Caribou migrate in large herds
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.
© John A. Nagy
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.
Peary Caribou
Working Together to Recover Boreal Caribou
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).
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.
Where are boreal caribou found?
© Judie Shore
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.
Working Together to Recover Boreal Caribou
Habitat needs
© Government of the Northwest Territories
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.
© Shane P. Mahoney
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.
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?
Working Together to Recover Boreal Caribou
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.
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,
• 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.
© Applied Ecosystem Management 1999
(Photo: R. Anderson and K. Kranrod)
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
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
• 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?
Working Together to Recover Boreal Caribou
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.
What does it mean for a population to be
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
For boreal caribou, the following population and distribution objectives are being used as a basis for discussion
during consultations:
• no longer needs recovery actions, although
ongoing management of activities (e.g., industrial
development, harvest) that affect boreal caribou
will be required; and
1. to maintain existing local populations that are
self-sustaining; and
• persists over the long term.
© John A. Nagy
© Shane P. Mahoney
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.
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?
Working Together to Recover Boreal Caribou
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
cfm?documentID=1761. A brief summary of the findings
from the Scientific Review is also available at www.
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
Some of the key conclusions from the Scientific Review
• 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.
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.
• 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.
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
• 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.
© A. Chabot
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.
Working Together to Recover Boreal Caribou
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.
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.
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.
2. Ensuring Aboriginal traditional knowledge about
boreal caribou informs the national recovery strategy.
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.
3. Conducting scientific studies on boreal caribou
habitat needs.
Please visit the Species at Risk Public Registry at:
to submit comments on the key elements of a national recovery strategy for boreal caribou,
please visit the Species at Risk Public Registry at:
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
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