Caribou

Caribou in Canada are a true northern species, specialized to thrive in a cold and barren landscape. They are classified into 12 designatable units (DU) based on genetics, appearance, behavior, and distribution and are generally categorized into three sub-species:

  • Peary (found only on arctic islands)
  • Barren-ground (found on the tundra)
  • Woodland (found in forests)

Caribou in B.C. were previously classified into three groups: mountain, northern, and boreal Caribou, but B.C. has now adopted The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) classification system of DU which represent a more scientifically sound approach.

To learn about caribou classification: Designatable Units for Caribou (PDF, 1.42MB)

All caribou in British Columbia are Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou); these caribou are comprised of 52 herds or subpopulations and are now classified into four DU’s: southern mountain, central mountain, northern mountain, and boreal.  

For more information about caribou in B.C.:

Physiology

Caribou are part of the deer family. They are larger than deer but smaller than elk and moose. Their coloration is usually medium to light brown with shades of gray and white on their rumps and necks. They are unique from other deer species in that both males and females grow antlers. The males lose their antlers in the early winter and the females retain theirs until their calves are born in spring. Caribou hooves are relatively large and rounded, which helps them dig through snow to reach food (terrestrial lichens) and allows them to walk on top of the snowpack when feeding on lichen that grow on trees (arboreal lichens).

Population

Under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA), all Woodland caribou populations in Canada have been identified as needing special management actions because of their declining population trends.

The largest threat to caribou is changing landscape, primarily associated to resource extraction. Industrial development fragments and alters caribou habitat and creates more browse and young forests. This type of vegetation facilitates the increase in moose, deer, and elk populations which in turn attracts predators like wolves, cougars, and bears who prey on caribou. Natural resource roads, pipelines, and seismic lines create corridors that enhance predator movement and effectiveness in caribou habitat.

The province of B.C. is committed to conserving caribou in British Columbia through implementing measures to support caribou management.  For more information please refer to the following DUs:

Southern Mountain Caribou (formerly known as mountain caribou) live in the Interior Wet Belt that stretches from northern Idaho and Washington States to central British Columbia. In contrast to Central and Northern Mountain Caribou, they remain in mature subalpine forest habitat year round. In winter, Southern Mountain Caribou walk on top of the deep snowpack and feed on lichens that grow on trees. 

Central Mountain Caribou (formerly known as northern caribou) live in east central British Colombia and west central Alberta. Some herds in the central mountain DU remain in subalpine forest and alpine habitat year round. In winter these herds eat either ground lichen from wind-swept alpine slopes or from mature trees near the treeline. Other herds move to low elevation pine forests where they crater for lichens in shallow snow. Despite differences in winter ranges, all herds return or remain in mountainous terrain for calving and summer. The lineage of Central mountain caribou is unique in that it contains a mixture of southern and northern lines.

Northern Mountain Caribou live in central and northern British Columbia with most moving between winter and summer ranges, although some caribou remain at one range year round. Calving strategies differ among herds, but most migrate to mountainous terrain for calving and summer. Northern caribou are distinct from other DUs both genetically and morphologically.

Boreal Caribou live in northeast British Columbia.  They differ from mountain caribou because they remain in boreal forests in winter and summer. Because boreal caribou do not seek refuge from predators in the mountains during calving and summer, they require large tracts of contiguous forest in order to space away from predators. Ground lichens are their main winter food.

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