Background on Boreal Caribou
Weight: 110-210kg (240-460lb)
Height at shoulder: 1-1.2m (3.3-4ft)
Large, highly adapted crescent-shaped hooves allow boreal caribou to walk on soft, snow-covered ground such as peat lands and swamps, and are used to dig through snow so that the caribou can forage for lichens and other ground vegetation. Both male and female boreal caribou grow antlers, though females may go a season without them. In summer, adults are dark brown, changing to grey for winter. Boreal caribou have a distinctive creamy-white shoulder, neck, mane, underbelly, and under-side of their tail.
Females will usually begin reproducing by age 3. Due to high rates of predation during calving season, only about half of calves born will survive their first 6 weeks.
Boreal caribou look almost identical to their cousins, the northern mountain caribou, but they have very different lifestyles and habitat preferences. Boreal caribou live most of their lives amongst the trees in undisturbed tracts of boreal forest in small family groups of around 10-12 individuals. Though they don’t migrate in large groups across hundreds of kilometres like other species of caribou, each family group will find areas they prefer based on the season, and will move seasonally between these habitats.
This differs greatly from the simliar-looking northern mountain population of caribou, who migrate seasonally in large herds of tens to hundreds of individuals between mountain snowline habitats in the summer to forested valleys in the winter.
Boreal caribou have special status in Canada.
Boreal caribou were listed federally as a Threatened species in 2003. The Government of Canada’s national recovery strategy for boreal caribou was published in 2012, and with it came specific territorial and provincial obligations to care for boreal caribou. As the NWT is home to boreal caribou critical habitat, some examples of territorial responsibilities spelled out in the recovery strategy include:
maintaining habitat and habitat connectivity,
range planning, and
measuring and monitoring disturbance on the landscape.
In February of 2014, the Government of the NWT (GNWT) officially listed the boreal caribou as a Threatened species under the NWT Species at Risk Act. Prior to this, the GNWT had already published a Five Year Action Plan for Boreal Woodland Caribou which laid out a path to sustaining our boreal caribou populations in the NWT. The document was a proactive step by the GNWT to acknowledge that, although NWT boreal caribou were not yet listed as a species at risk, we had an obligation to preserve their population.
A territorial boreal caribou recovery strategy, required for any species listed under the NWT SARA, is expected for release in February of 2016, and an action plan will be released shortly after. CPAWS-NWT will share information on opportunities for the public to participate in reviewing the draft recovery strategy sometime in 2015.
Prior to this, the NWT Species At Risk Committee assessed boreal caribou as a Threatened species in the NWT in December 2012. A status report was released at the same time (see the status report here). This status report is a fantastic resource on boreal caribou information in the NWT.
Loss and disruption of habitat are the biggest threats to boreal caribou in the NWT. Incremental encroachment by the oil and gas sector in the form of seismic exploration and new roads built to access well sites cause the majority of linear habitat disturbance. These activities create corridors through the boreal forest that expose boreal woodland caribou to increased predator access. These caribou are also very sensitive to landscape change – some may travel distances of up to 5km to avoid structures or man-made features. 1
Fires (Natural disturbance)
The boreal forest relies on fire for regeneration. Black spruce, which is host to some of the lichens that boreal caribou prefer to eat, have adapted over thousands of years to a natural fire cycle within the boreal forest. As we saw in the summer of 2014, fire seasons in the boreal forest are becoming increasingly extreme. Not only do more intense, widespread fires displace caribou and other animals, and destroy more habitat, but they also create conditions that are very difficult for black spruce to grow in. Burned landscapes are best for fast growing, first colonizers like aspen and birch, which will eventually be replaced by trees like black spruce, but in the meantime, these trees are only productive and green in the summer months. They cannot grow the lichens that boreal caribou like to eat, which naturally live through winter months, and they do not provide cover needed by boreal caribou to hide from predators.
Climate Change – Fuelling the Fire
As global temperatures continue to trend upwards, and conditions in Canada’s north become hotter and drier, the threat of increasingly intense forest fire seasons is real. Considering that over 3 million hectares of land and forest burned in 2014 alone, a good portion of that being in boreal caribou habitat range (Dehcho, Sahtu, and North Slave regions), another severe fire season could mean serious trouble for NWT's boreal caribou population.
How are boreal caribou being protected in the NWT?
To accompany the recovery strategy, the GNWT is working to develop range plans, and is committed to working with management authorities from the Inuvialuit, Gwich'in, Sahtu, Tlicho, and Dehcho to bring regional and local knowledge to the range planning process. Range plans will demonstrate how critical habitat for boreal caribou will be maintained within the NWT.
Boreal caribou have been officially protected across Canada since 2003 when they were listed federally as a Threatened species under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. A national recovery strategy was finally released in 2012, and includes guiding principles for recovery of the species for each province and territory. You can read the federal recovery strategy here. However many jurisdictions have yet to implement range plans that will be effective for the protection and recovery of boreal woodland caribou. CPAWS recently released our Third Annual Caribou Report, which summarizes progress in each province and territory.
1. (Cameron et al. 1992, Smith et al. 2000, Dyer et al. 2001, Nellemann et al. 2001, Vistnes & Nellemann 2001, Mahoney & Schaefer 2002, Cameron et al. 2005)
What CPAWS is doing
CPAWS-NWT continues to support the establishment of culturally significant and ecologically representative protected areas in the NWT. Many of these areas put forward for study through the NWT Protected Areas Strategy, play a critical role in protecting boreal caribou habitat. The territorial and federal governments have a significant opportunity to protect core areas of habitat by supporting completion of proposed protected areas such as; Ts’ude niline Tu’eyeta (Ramparts), Edéhzhíe (Horn Plateau), Sambaa K’e (Trout Lake), and Ka’a’gee Tu (Kakisa).
We are also working to:
support the completion and implementation of the GNWT’s Species at Risk Act recovery strategy and range plans;
create public education tools and increase public awareness of boreal caribou, their needs, and threats to the population; and
participate in environmental regulatory processes to ensure that obligations under the federal and territorial SARA are being fulfilled.
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