Published on February 7, 2013 by Amy
Although the caribou Rangifer tarandus is one of Canada’s most widely distributed large mammals, most Canadians know it only as the animal on the 25-cent piece. Caribou are most familiar to northern Canadians, for many of whom they are an essential economic resource. The caribou’s Micmac name was “xalibu,” meaning “the one who paws,” and the present name is probably a corruption of this word.
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Caribou are found in Canada from the U.S.-Canada boundary in western Ontario and British Columbia to northern Ellesmere Island, more than 4000 km north. Their approximate range is shown on the accompanying map. Some caribou are forest- and mountain-dwellers; some migrate each year between the sparse forests and tundra of the far north; others remain on the tundra all year.
The caribou is a medium-sized member of the deer family, Cervidae, which includes four other species of deer native to Canada: moose, elk, white-tailed deer, and mule deer. All are ungulates cloven- hoofed cud-chewers. However, only in caribou do both males and most females carry antlers. Caribou are similar to and belong tothe same species as the wild and domesticated reindeer of Eurasia.
The caribou is well adapted to its environment. It has a short, stocky body and a long dense winter coat which provides effective insulation, even during periods of low temperature and high wind. The muzzle and tail are short and well haired. Large, concave hooves splay widely to support the animal in snow or muskeg, and function as efficient scoops when the caribou paws through snow to uncover lichens and other food plants. The sharp edges give firm footing on ice or smooth rock. Caribou are excellent swimmers and their hooves function well as paddles. In summer, the hooves are worn away by travel over hard ground and rocks.
A caribou bull (male) in full autumn pelage is an imposing animal with its rich brown or grey and white pelage, dewlap fringe of white hair flowing from throat to chest, and great rack of amber-coloured antlers. Adult bulls generally shed their antlers in November or December, after they have mated. Cows and young animals carry their antlers much longer, often through the winter. The growing antlers have a fuzzy covering, called velvet, which contains blood vessels carrying nutrients for growth.
The ability of caribou to use lichens as a primary food distinguishes them from all other large mammals and has enabled them to survive on harsh northern rangeland. Caribou have an excellent sense of smell, which they use to locate lichens under the snow.
Caribou are very curious and hunters have found that by slowly waving their arms, or bobbing up and down from the waist, they can often attract caribou to close range.
There are three types of caribou in Canada: woodland, barren-ground, and Peary. A fourth type, the Queen Charlotte Island race, is extinct. The Queen Charlotte Island caribou Rangifer tarandus dawsoni was a small, greyish caribou found only on Graham Island. Little is known of this animal or of the causes for its extinction, but deterioration of habitat due to climate change was probably a more important cause than hunting.
The Peary caribou Rangifer tarandus pearyi is a small, light-coloured caribou found only in the islands of the Canadian arctic archipelago. Average weights are 70 kg for bulls and 55 kg for cows. The total population was estimated at 3300–3600 animals in the late 1980s and was declining. Peary caribou are listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) because of their low overall numbers.
The woodland caribou Rangifer tarandus caribou is a large, dark caribou that is usually found in small herds in (boreal) forests from British Columbia to Newfoundland. Average weights are 180 kg for bulls and 135 kg for cows. In mountainous areas of western Canada, woodland caribou make seasonal movements from winter range in forested valleys to summer range on high, alpine tundra. Farther east, in the more level areas of boreal forest, they may move only a few kilometres seasonally from mature forest to open bogs. The George River Herd, however, is an exception to this pattern and makes extensive seasonal movements between forested and tundra habitats in Quebec and Labrador. This herd is currently estimated at over 500 000 animals and is the largest herd of caribou in Canada.
Woodland caribou became extinct in Prince Edward Island before 1873 and in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by the 1920s. Today only a small, relic herd on the Gaspé Peninsula remains of the maritime woodland caribou population south and east of the St. Lawrence River. This herd is considered threatened by COSEWIC. Caribou have also been severely reduced on the southern edge of their distribution across the rest of Canada and exist only in small, scattered herds from British Columbia to Quebec. The western population of woodland caribou is categorized as vulnerable by COSEWIC. Overhunting in some areas and changes in habitat in others brought about the decline in numbers. Clearing of land for agriculture has destroyed caribou habitat. Vast areas of forest have been logged or burned and replaced by new growth that is much more suitable for moose and deer than for caribou. The invading deer brought a neurological disease that kills caribou, although it does not harm the deer. Opportunity for reintroduction of woodland caribou to parts of its former range are therefore limited.
The barren-ground caribou is somewhat smaller and lighter coloured than the woodland caribou and spends much or all of the year on the tundra from Alaska to Baffin Island. The Alaskan form, Grant’s caribou Rangifer tarandus granti, lives west of the Mackenzie River and the Canadian form Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus lives to the east. Average weights for the smaller Canadian form are 145 kg for bulls and 90 kg for cows. Most (about 1.2 million) of the barren-ground caribou in Canada live in five large herds, which migrate seasonally from the tundra to the sparsely treed northern coniferous forests, known as taiga. In order, from Alaska to Hudson Bay, these are the Porcupine Herd, Bluenose Herd, Bathurst Herd, Beverly Herd, and Kaminuriak Herd. Other barren-ground caribou (about 120 000) live in smaller herds that spend the entire year on the tundra. Barren-ground caribou make up the majority of caribou in Canada and are the mainstay of many northern Amerindian and Inuit communities.
The life of a migratory barren-ground caribou has a fixed annual pattern. Most spend winter in the taiga, but some always winter on the tundra. Usually the bulls venture farthest south into the forest where snow tends to be deepest, and the cows and juveniles remain nearer the tree line. The herds gather in spring for the migration to the calving grounds and to their summer range on the tundra.
Barren-ground caribou are good navigators, unerringly walking hundreds of kilometres in spring to their relatively small calving areas. They tend to follow frozen lakes and rivers, open snow-free uplands, and eskers long narrow hills of soil and rock dumped by glaciers to their destination. Caribou are able to keep a steady direction across frozen lakes so large that the opposite shore cannot be seen.
The pregnant cows lead the spring migration, followed by the juveniles and the bulls, which tend to lag farther and farther behind. Barren-ground caribou cows head toward traditional calving grounds to which they return year after year, even from different wintering areas. About 90 % of adult cows (3 years old or older) produce calves annually. Most of the calves are born in a 10-day period in late May or early June.
The calves are well developed at birth and are able to travel within a few hours. They start to graze during their first weeks, although at that stage they can digest only milk. The cows and calves soon move to areas where fresh-growing feed is becoming abundant. During summer they are often harassed by hordes of mosquitoes, warble flies, caribou nostril flies and, in some areas, black flies. Sometimes the agitated animals will run for many kilometres, stopping to rest only when exhausted or when high winds temporarily disperse the insects. Running from insects places great energy demands on the caribou, and may retard their rate of growth by temporarily reducing their foraging.
In July the herds start to move en masse and feed on flowers, grasses, and leaves of shrubs. The mating season, the rut, occurs in late October and early November. By late September the herds, fat and in good condition are arriving in pre-rutting areas. Bulls spar a great deal and sometimes fight for possession of cows.
The migration routes have always been so well established that, in past years, Native hunters lay in wait for caribou at places where they would cross lakes or rivers. Occasionally, however, the caribou did change their migration routes, and hunters and their families located near the traditional migration path faced starvation.
The wolf is a natural predator of the caribou. Wolf packs follow the migrating herds from summer to winter range and back. Caribou are relatively free from this predator only during calving time, when the breeding wolves are raising their young in areas distant from the calving ground. A wolf requires food equivalent to 11-14 caribou a year, and it may kill that many. Most wolves also hunt mice, lemmings, other small mammals, and birds. Wolves cannot run as fast for as long as healthy caribou, especially in deep snow, so wolves often chase a caribou in relays, or wait in ambush for an unwary victim.
Wolves have a culling effect on the caribou population, as they kill the aged, injured, or young weak animals when they are available. Most biologists agree that the relationship between wolf and caribou benefits both. Certainly the relationship has evolved and lasted over tens of thousands of years.
The human being, however, is the greatest of all caribou predators. Many Canadian Amerindians and Inuit based their culture on the caribou, and could not have survived in the north without them. Some tribes were nomadic, and followed the herds year round; others lived on caribou for part of the year. Caribou provided food, clothing, and shelter: bones were made into needles and utensils, antlers into tools, and the sinew into thread; the fat provided fuel and light; the skin was made into light, warm clothing and tent material; and the flesh fed people and dogs.
The take by hunters using primitive weapons was in balance with the numbers of caribou. The introduction of the rifle by trappers and traders, however, made it possible to kill large numbers. It is thought that in the three decades before 1950, kill by humans ranged from 100 000 to 200 000 a year. In some years, this was more than the animals’ natural increase.
Originally there were probably at least three million barren-ground caribou. Their numbers began to decline shortly after Europeans arrived in the North armed with rifles and seeking furs. By 1949, when aerial survey methods made it possible to count caribou for the first time, there were only about 750 000 animals. Despite federal, territorial, and provincial government attempts to reduce overhunting by supervising hunts and enforcing game regulations, and in spite of an emergency wolf-control program, the population continued to fall, to about 350 000 by 1955. For a time there was fear that the caribou might, like the plains bison, approach extinction. However, a 1967 range-wide survey by Canadian Wildlife Service biologists showed that the decline had stopped. Barren-ground caribou now number about 1.3 million.
Exploration and settlement of the north were possible because caribou provided food. Today, caribou are still an economical source of meat because transporting food into the north is expensive. The vast herds of migrating caribou present a wildlife spectacle unequalled on this continent and, as an attraction to naturalists, photographers, and sport hunters, could contribute to a tourist industry in the north. Wisely used, caribou can be a continuing economic resource in the North.