On Caribou and the Conservation Conundrum

The central conundrum of conservation is the conflict between industrial development and the protection of biodiversity. And the classic example of this in Canada is the conservation of caribou. Caribou in the millions have ranged over almost all of Canada in the past. They are now retreating in much of the southern part of their range, have nearly gone extinct in the High Arctic, and are extinct on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). The majority of populations with adequate data are dropping in numbers rapidly. The causes of their demise point to human habitat destruction from forestry, mining, oil and gas developments and roads (Festa-Bianchet et al. 2011). We march on with economic development, and caribou are in the way of progress.

The nexus of interactions underlying this crisis is reasonably well understood for boreal caribou and there is an extensive literature on the topic (Bergerud et al. 2007; Hervieux et al. 2013; Hervieux et al. 2014; Schaefer and Mahoney 2013; Wittmer et al. 2007). Caribou avoid human constructions like pipelines, mines, forestry operations, and roads. Forestry in particular opens up habitat that tends to favor deer and moose. Climate change makes winters less severe for deer. More prey makes more predators, and caribou are typically accidental, secondary prey from wolves that live largely off moose and deer. The habitats that humans open up with roads, seismic lines, and wellheads provide superhighways for wolves and other predators, so that predator access is greatly improved. Such access roads also allow hunters to access ungulates and potentially increase the harvest rate.

If predators are the key immediate factor reducing caribou populations, there seem to be two general solutions. Killing wolves is the most obvious management action, and much of wildlife management in North America has historically been based on the simple paradigm: “killing wolves is the answer, now what is the question?” But two problems arise. There are more predators than wolves (e.g. bears) and secondly killing wolves does not work very well (Hayes 2010). At best it seems to slow down the caribou decline at great expense, and it has to be continuous year after year because killing wolves increases the reproductive rate of those left behind and migration of wolves into the “control” area is rapid. So this management action becomes too expensive in the long run to work well and most people don’t want to see bears killed wholesale either. So the next option is to use fencing to protect caribou from contact with all predators. These fences could be on small areas into which pregnant female caribou are put in the spring to have their calves, and then released when the calves are a few months old and have a better chance of avoiding predators. Or the ultimate fence would be around hundreds of square kilometers to enclose a permanent caribou population with all the predators removed inside the fenced area. This would require continuous maintenance and is very costly. It turns caribou into a zoo animal, albeit on a large scale.

There is one other solution and that is to set aside very large areas of habitat that are not invaded by the forestry, mining, and oil industries, and to monitor the dynamics of caribou in these large reserves. Manitoba is apparently doing this, with reported success in stopping caribou declines.

Beyond these southern populations of caribou in the boreal forest zone, the problems of caribou population trends on the tundra are difficult to unravel, partly because of a lack of data arising from a shortage of funds (Gunn et al. 2011). Climate change is happening and the exact effects on tundra populations is unclear. Many barren-ground caribou herds show fluctuations in abundance with a period of about 50 years. Food supply exhaustion may be one factor in the fluctuations but harvesting is also involved. Local harvest data are often not recorded and with poor population data and poor harvest data we can rarely determine the trajectories of the herds or explain why they are changing in abundance. Peary caribou in the far north are suffering from climate change, rain events in winter that freezes their food supply of lichens under ice so they starve. No one knows how to alleviate the weather, and we only add to the problem with our greenhouse gas emissions. Peary caribou now survive in very low numbers but we cannot be sure that will continue.

All in all, we work hard to conserve large mammal ecosystems in tropical countries but seem far too unconcerned about our Canadian caribou heritage. To inform conservation actions, serious long-term population studies are sorely needed, including more frequent aerial census estimates for all the caribou herds, radio-collaring individuals for demographic data and movements, and complete harvesting data from all sources.


Bergerud, A.T., Dalton, W.J., Butler, H., Camps, L., and Ferguson, R. 2007. Woodland caribou persistence and extirpation in relic populations on Lake Superior. Rangifer 27(4): 57-78 (Special Issue No. 17). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.7557/

Festa-Bianchet, M., Ray, J.C., Boutin, S., Côté, S.D., and Gunn, A. 2011. Conservation of caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Canada: an uncertain future. Canadian Journal of Zoology 89(5): 419-434. doi:10.1139/z11-025 .

Gunn, A., Russell, D., and Eamer, J. 2011. Northern caribou population trends in Canada. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 10. Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Ottawa, ON. iv + 71 p. http://www.biodivcanada.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=137E1147-1

Hayes, B. (2010) Wolves of the Yukon. Wolves of the Yukon Publishing, Smithers, B.C. ISBN: 978-1-4566-1047-0

Hervieux, D., Hebblewhite, M., DeCesare, N.J., Russell, M., Smith, K., Robertson, S., and Boutin, S. 2013. Widespread declines in woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) continue in Alberta. Canadian Journal of Zoology 91(12): 872-882. doi:10.1139/cjz-2013-0123.

Hervieux, D., Hebblewhite, M., Stepnisky, D., Bacon, M., and Boutin, S. 2014. Managing wolves (Canis lupus) to recover threatened woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Alberta. Canadian Journal of Zoology 92(12): 1029-1037. doi:10.1139/cjz-2014-0142 .

Schaefer, J.A., and Mahoney, S.P. 2013. Spatial dynamics of the rise and fall of caribou (Rangifer tarandus) in Newfoundland. Canadian Journal of Zoology 91(11): 767-774. doi:10.1139/cjz-2013-0132 .

Wittmer, H.U., McLennan, B.N., Serrouya, R., and Apps, C.D. 2007. Changes in landscape composition influence the decline of a threatened caribou population. Journal of Animal Ecology 76: 568-579. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2007.01220.x

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