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Woodland Caribou (Rangifer Tarandus Caribou)


The conservation of woodland caribou (Fig. 1) in Canada is difficult and complex. Major problems are uncertain taxonomy and systematics, uncertainty about which genetic populations must be conserved, lack of knowledge about local populations and caribou ecology, and high natural variation and measurement error in population sizes and trends. There is also large geographic variation in risk of population decline, because of large east-west and north-south variations in climate, topography, vegetation, ecological conditions, anddegree of habitat modification by human activities.

Figure 1: Photo of Woodland Caribou

Figure 1: Photo of woodland caribou, courtesy of Elston Dzus, Athabasca, Alberta.

Courtesy of Elston Dzus, Athabasca, Alberta.

The classic taxonomy of caribou was based largely on craniometry of adults (Banfield 1961). To date, there is no official change in the taxonomy of caribou. All caribou in Quebec and Labrador are in the woodland subspecies, as are caribou on the Hudson Plain. Exclusion of the forest-tundra (“migratory”) ecotype from forest-dwelling (“sedentary”) local populations within the Boreal NEA is justified for conservation and management because of genetic and ecological differences. Ecological differences have resulted in large differences in trends in numbers, reproduction, mortality, etc. Those differences between caribou ecotypes will increase as forestry and other developments expand northward and climate warming affects ecological processes.

Before 1978, little was published on forest-dwelling caribou from B.C. to Newfoundland. Consequently, as studies expanded, numbers of local populations (herds) increased from 55 in 1985 (Williams and Heard 1986), to 98 in 1991 (Ferguson and Gauthier 1992), and to more than 164 in 2001 (Table 2, Appendix 1a-d). The proper group name (subpopulation, local population, population, and metapopulation) of many distributions remains uncertain and arbitrary until members are radio collared and movements recorded over many years.

This update provides information to help COSEWIC designate forest-dwelling populations of the subspecies caribou. It excludes another woodland caribou, R. t. dawsoni, which became extinct about 1935 on Haida Gwaii (Banfield 1961, Cowan and Guiguet 1965). It was not genetically distinct from present-day caribou in northern B.C. and Alaska based on limited DNA analysis (Byrun et al. 2002).

There is justification for separate designation of forest-dwelling woodland caribou in National Ecological Areas (NEA) adopted by COSEWIC in 1994 (Fig. 3). Caribou in four of the eight NEAs are distinct COSEWIC populations: Northern Mountain, Southern Mountain, Boreal, andAtlantic. A fifth population, Newfoundland, is treated separately as an isolated, distinct population (COSEWIC 2000c). This report summarizes, for each COSEWIC population, the historical and current estimates and trends, distribution and range sizes, known threats and limiting factors, degree of monitoring, and protection afforded by parks and other protected areas. That is accomplished by accumulating data for all COSEWIC subpopulations herein termed local populations.

Figure 2: Proportions of Southern and Northern Clades in Sampled Local Populations of Caribou in Canada

Figure 2: Proportions of southern and northern clades in sampled local populations of caribou in Canada (Dueck 1998, Dueck and Strobeck pers. comm.).

(Dueck 1998, Dueck and Strobeck pers. comm.)

Codes for populations: CHS = Chisana, HRV = Hart River, ASK = Aishihik, WLF = Wolf Lake, JNP = South Jasper National Park, CAR = Cariboo Mountains, SLK = Central Selkirk, PRL = South Purcell, SKN = Saskatchewan, PUK = Pukaskwa, NEO = Northeast Ontario, MDR = Middle Ridge, HUM = Humber, MLY = Mealy, GRV = George River, KMB = Cape Churchill, KAM = Qamanirjuaq, BEV = Beverly, BAT = Bathurst, BLN = Bluenose, SIL = Southampton, BFN = South Baffin.

This report does not revise the taxonomy of woodland caribou (Banfield 1961) nor review all existing information. It builds on information in the first COSEWIC status report on woodland caribou (Kelsall 1984). It benefits from reviews published since 1984 (Williams and Heard 1986, Edmonds 1991, Ferguson and Gauthier 1992, Cumming 1998, Edmonds 1998, Farnell et al. 1998, Heard and Vagt 1998, Rettie et al. 1998, Mallory and Hillis 1998). It also draws on information in reports prepared by or for jurisdictions (Harris 1999, Hatter 2000, Dzus 2001), and tabular information generously provided by provincial/territorial representatives (see Acknowledgements).

This report follows a new format developed in April 2000 (COSEWIC 2000a) and revised in 2001 (COSEWIC 2001). It is shaped by definitions of species and populations-at-risk. The latter conform to the NEA established in 1994 (COSEWIC 1994) and global perspectives (IUCN 1994, 1998, 1999) modified to a national scale (COSEWIC 2000c). It provides additional background information for designations made by COSEWIC in May 2000 (Tables 10 & 11 in COSEWIC 2000b) and May 2002 based on the new NEA and information from the jurisdictions. In summary, this review is limited to:

  1. Forest-dwelling woodland caribou, subspecies caribou, exclusive of the migratory forest-tundra ecotype: Leaf River, George River, Pen Island, Cape Churchill, and other populations on the northern Hudson Plain.
  2. Populations in four of eight NEAs: Northern Mountain, Southern Mountain, Boreal, and Atlantic (COSEWIC 1994).
  3. A fifth population in insular Newfoundland is treated separately from the Boreal as a distinct, isolated population.

Local Knowledge

Only in the past two decades was there much recognition of the value of local and traditional ecological knowledge.  It now is incorporated in COSEWIC guidelines (COSEWIC 2000a) and is required, where available, by the Species at Risk Act (SARA 2002). This knowledge should be incorporated into jurisdictional assessments of caribou status for the next revision of this “living” report (COSEWIC 2001). Authors of COSEWIC reports cannot acquire it for wide-ranging species such as caribou.

Systems for obtaining local knowledge are being explored (e.g., Kofinas 1998, Urquhart 2001). To date, most knowledge is obtained through personal contacts with hunters. In the foothills of Alberta, local people identified two types of caribou and subsequent studies identified mountain and woodland ecotypes (Edmonds and Bloomfield 1984). Similarly, Aboriginal hunters noted two types of caribou in the Cape Churchill population (C. Elliott pers. comm. 2000). That observation subsequently was confirmed by DNA analysis (Fig. 2). Inuit and Cree sources along the western Hudson Bay coast also reported mixing of the Pen Island population with woodland caribou (McDonald et al. 1997), presumably the Nelson-Hayes rivers population. The Cree and Inuit of coastal Quebec noted increases in caribou numbers along the coast of James Bay (McDonald et al. 1997). The Cree of Lake Mistassini, Quebec, reported that the Caniapiscau population travelled south as far as Val d'Or and Lac Saint-Jean

Figure 3: National Ecological Areas Established by COSEWIC in 1994

Figure 3: National Ecological Areas established by COSEWIC in 1994.

COSEWIC Ecological Areas compiled by the NWT Centre for Remote Sensing, Yellowknife, NWT from the Ecological Framework of Canada Database, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Environment Canada, 1995.

(Blacksmith pers. comm. 1997). Some information is in printed form (e.g., Novalinga 1997), whereas much information can only be obtained orally through personal contact or interviews. The next COSEWIC status report on forest-dwelling woodland caribou should have more information from Aboriginal and other local people as jurisdictions begin to collect that information.