Every Canadian interacts with caribou daily, whether they realize it or not. Since 1937, a caribou has adorned the back of our 25-cent coin as a symbol of Canadian wildlife and grandeur. Across the country, caribou have been featured as prominent icons of Canadian history and national pride.
Boreal woodland caribou in Northern Alberta. Photo courtesy of Nature, the International Weekly Journal of Science, and photographer John E. Marriott.
Amazingly, Canadian caribou range from the Yukon to Newfoundland. There are four subspecies of migratory caribou in Canada, all locally adapted to their environments. Barren ground caribou are native to the tundra of Northern Canada and are the most abundant subspecies. Mountain caribou are considerably less numerous, as are the boreal woodland and the Arctic islands caribou.
Range map of caribou subspecies across Canada. Photo courtesy of COSEWIC and CPAWS.
Caribou are particularly important to northern Indigenous communities across Canada’s Arctic. For instance, a large caribou herd migrates past the community of Rankin Inlet annually. From a subsistence perspective, this is a great opportunity for the Inuit of Rankin to hunt for food. From a community perspective, the presence of caribou encourages adults and youth alike to learn about sustainable harvest and their hunting heritage. They practice hunting primarily from the largest, most resilient herds.
Thousands of caribou are migrating past Rankin Inlet. Photo courtesy of CBC Nunavut and photographer Rose Tootoo.
Despite the cultural and ecological importance of caribou, their ranges are becoming fragmented and their populations are decreasing. This is due to habitat loss and negative impacts of human activity. Over the past three decades, the global caribou population has declined by 40% and Canadian caribou are now found in just half of their historic range. As a result, caribou are categorized as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.
Knowing this, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we protect caribou?” As a conservation biologist, I understand first hand the importance of teaching fellow Canadians about aspects of our vast wilderness that they may not otherwise interact with. Through education, we can rally support for conservation initiatives and prioritize our environment.
Caribou need to be on the radar of young, conservation-minded Canadians across our nation. “It would be devastating to lose such an important part of our natural heritage… The preservation of caribou means the preservation of boreal forest habitat important to a large suite of species,” says Conservation Assistant Tara Russell, 25, of CPAWS Alberta. It is easy to feel discouraged when it comes to conservation because of the vastness of our country and the scope of environmental challenges we face. However, there are many small changes we can make in our daily lives that will positively influence caribou. Here are 3 easy ways Canadians can help:
1) Speak Up!
“All provinces are required to produce Range Plans for threatened woodland caribou,” says Tara. “These plans should outline how their ranges will be managed to ensure they have the undisturbed habitat they need to survive.” In order for caribou to persist, they require a healthy, connected habitat that includes protected areas with restricted hunting and development. Tara recommends Canadian youth take action by “speaking to your [provincial] government to let them know that you support Range Plans, and you want them done well! The caribou and our boreal forest need your voice.”
2) Follow the Three R’s
On a smaller scale, you can protect caribou by reducing your use of paper products, or reusing and recycling what you do use. This will ease the commercial logging of caribou habitats. Limiting habitat loss will allow caribou to continuously migrate safely between their breeding and feeding grounds.
3) Walk, Bike, Carpool, or Take Public Transit
Decreasing your gas consumption by driving less diminishes the need for oil extraction from northern landscapes. Roads fragment forests, interfering with vital caribou behaviour and exposing them to predators, like wolves.
Protecting caribou across Canada is a multi-step process that requires the education, commitment, and determination of our citizens in collaboration with our federal and provincial governments. Providing caribou with a healthy environment can increase their chances of surviving in a changing climate. It’s simple: we can benefit caribou by minimally updating our lifestyles! Through these easy actions, we as Canadians can feel empowered to support the nation-wide conservation of this significant species.