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Porcupine, Peary, and Dolphin and Union Caribou

Porcupine Caribou

Porcupine caribou complete the longest land migration by a mammal in the world, covering over 4,000 kms between the NWT, Yukon, and Alaska. This migration is done twice a year seasonally to areas with better weather, food and snow cover conditions. They calve along the arctic coast in Alaska and Yukon. Much of this land is in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also known as the lizhik Gwats’am Gwandaii Goodlit by the Gwich’in. Their population is estimated at 218,000 and is the only barren-ground caribou herd in North America to be at a population peak. The porcupine caribou face the threat of oil and gas companies to develop on the Arctic Refuge. In 2020, the US Department of Interior approved oil companies to develop on the Arctic Refuge and imposed few restrictions on drilling. CPAWS Yukon and twelve other groups filed a lawsuit and are fighting to protect the area. Also, CPAWS Yukon, the Vuntut Gwitchin and Gwich’in Tribal Council are campaigning Canadian banks to not fund the Arctic Refuge drilling in an attempt to stifle oil company’s development. Management of porcupine caribou is guided by the International Porcupine Caribou Board and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board in Canada. You can learn more about porcupine caribou on the CPAWS Yukon website here

Peary Caribou

The peary caribou are physically the smallest of all the caribou. Males weigh on average 110 kg and are 1.7m in length. They are white in the winter and grey in the summer with white legs and under parts. The velvet on their antlers is grey. Their small body size allows them to conserve heat and survive winters in their harsh environment. Peary caribou live on arctic islands in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut in small groups. They summer on river valley slopes or other moist areas, and uplands with abundant sedges, willows, grasses, and herbs. They winter on exposed areas like hilltops and raised beach ridges because there is less snow cover, so it is easier for them to find food. Their food sources include grasses, sedges, lichen, willow and even mushrooms. They migrate between summer and winter habitat which is sometimes between islands. Peary caribou are great swimmers making their migration easier. Their current population is estimated to be around 13,200 mature individuals. They have been assessed as threatened by COSEWIC, listed as endangered by the federal Species at Risk Act, and listed as threatened under NWT’s Species at Risk Act. The Inuvialuit have introduced self-imposed harvest restrictions that are reviewed annually. 

Dolphin and Union Caribou 

Dolphin and union caribou look similar to peary caribou but are slightly larger and darker in colour. The velvet on their antlers is also grey. They once were thought to be peary caribou, but genetic studies now show they are distinct. Dolphin and union caribou live on Victoria Island and on the coasts of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. They cross the frozen sea ice between Victoria Island and the mainland twice a year. Their summer is spent on Victoria Island where they live on beach ridges and river valley slopes. They winter on the mainland in windswept areas that have a shallow snow cover which allows them to access food sources. Mainly they live in the Bathurst Inlet in Nunavut in the winter. They have been known to gather on the shore of Victoria Island in the fall and wait for the ice to thicken enough for them to cross. In 1997 their population was estimated at greater than 30,000, but in 2018 was recorded as low as 4,000. They are listed as special concern under the federal Species at Risk Act and as special concern under the NWT Species at Risk Act. One of the main threats the dolphin and union caribou face is climate change. As temperatures rise sea ice thins and becomes more prone to breaking, causing the caribou to drown when they attempt to cross it. Also, rain-on-snow events are increasing and cause food to become inaccessible due to an ice layer that forms. Increased ship traffic can hinder ice formation and therefore impact migration and lead to caribou drowning and death. If the caribou cannot migrate, they face loss of food source, suitable habitat and increased predation. Dolphin and union caribou are important for food security, raw materials and economic opportunities for the Inuvialuit and Inuit peoples.