Boreal Caribou

Boreal woodland caribou ('boreal caribou') are ecologically & culturally important in the NWT. The status of their population reflects the health & biodiversity of the boreal forest ecosystem. Boreal caribou are a Threatened species in Canada, and there is a concern that their numbers in the NWT may face a significant decline in the near future as industry moves north. Intense industrial development in neighboring provinces Alberta and British Columbia has left many local populations on the brink of survival. But there is hope! The NWT has an opportunity to make critical resource management decisions that will secure the future of this species & the health of our boreal forest.

Background on Boreal Caribou

Weight: 110-210kg (240-460lb)
Height at shoulder: 1-1.2m (3.3-4ft)
Adaptations & Features:

  • Large, highly adapted crescent-shaped hooves: allow boreal caribou to walk on soft, snow-covered ground, and have sharp edges to prevent slipping on ice. Sharp edges are also handy to dig through snow to forage for lichens and other ground vegetation.

  • Both male & female boreal caribou grow antlers: 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 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 similar-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.

Check out our boreal caribou science poster!


Conservation Status

Federal Status

Boreal caribou were listed federally as a Threatened species in 2003. The Government of Canada's Recovery Strategy for Boreal Population of Woodland 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 critical habitat for boreal caribou, some examples of territorial responsibilities were also spelled out in the recovery strategy, and include: 

  •  maintaining habitat and habitat connectivity,

  •  range planning, and

  •  measuring and monitoring disturbance on the landscape.

Territorial Status

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.

February of 2017 saw the release of the GNWT's Recovery Strategy for the boreal caribou. This recover strategy will be reviewed by the Conference of Management Authorities at least every five years. These reviews result in progress reporting and actions that have been undertaken to implement the strategy. 

CPAWS-NWT will be reviewing the strategy, and looks forward to working with territorial and regional Indigenous governments to continue to strengthen protection for boreal caribou in the territory.

From the GNWT 2017 Boreal Caribou Recovery Strategy:

   "Conservation and recovery objectives

Objectives for the conservation and recovery of boreal caribou are:

1) Ensure there is adequate habitat across the NWT range to maintain a healthy and sustainable population of boreal caribou;
2) Ensure that harvest of boreal caribou is sustainable;
3) Obtain information to inform sound management decisions, including boreal caribou ecology, key habitat and population indicators, and cumulative effects;
4) Manage boreal caribou collaboratively, using adaptive management practices and the best available information;
5) Exchange information with NWT people about boreal caribou in all regions; and
6) Further to the national recovery strategy, ensure recovery obligations for protecting critical habitat and maintaining a self-sustaining population are met or exceeded in NWT."  


The threat

Habitat Loss

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. In December of 2016, CPAWS released our Fourth Annual Caribou Report, which summarizes boreal caribou conservation 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 GNWT and regional Aboriginal Governments to implement the NWT-SAR Recovery Strategy;

  • 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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