Case Study: Caribou

When you think of Canada and its wildlife, there are a few iconic animal species that might immediately come to mind. Perhaps you think of the beaver, the grizzly bear, or the orca. This next section will look at another one of the most important and recognizable Canadian animal species: the caribou.

Canadian caribou are key to the Canadian wilderness in part due to the caribou’s historical connection with Canada’s Indigenous and Inuit peoples and in part due to their migratory patterns and far-reaching ranges which mean that caribou herds can be found across the country.

The caribou is even featured on our 25 cent coin!

Caribou are considered by biologists to be a keystone species and could historically be found across Canada.[1] In fact, Canada has four sub-species of caribou: the woodland caribou, the peary caribou, the barren ground caribou, and Grant’s caribou. There was a fifth subspecies which lived on Haida Gwaii, an island off the coast of British Columbia, however they are now extinct – an unfortunate reality that seems to be far too possible for the remaining Canadian caribou herds.

Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) from the George River area, Labrador, Canada.
© / WWF-Canada

Caribou subspecies are then broken down into well-known herds, generally based on location. The woodland caribou subspecies includes the boreal caribou population which can be found in 9 provinces and territories across Canada and which is the focus of much of the current government action on caribou. [2]

The biggest threat facing caribou populations in Canada comes from habitat fragmentation, which usually occurs due to human expansion and industrial activity. [3] Fragmentation can be a side effect of logging operations, oil and gas exploration, and mining developments as well as other invasive human activity. Changes to historic caribou habitat have also increased predator access, making it easier for caribou’s main predators – namely wolves, lynx, cougars, coyotes, and bears – to find the herds. Caribou are not adapted to these higher levels of predation and have not been able to cope.

Other factors such as hunting and poaching, noise and light disturbances, parasites and disease, as well as weather and climate change also affect caribou populations. Unfortunately, protection efforts have been slow and caribou populations across Canada continue to decline.

Woodland caribou were listed as threatened in 2002 and subsequently added to SARA’s species at risk list. However, a federal Recovery Strategy was not released until 2012 – 10 years later. The recovery goal identified in this report was to achieve self-sustaining local populations in all boreal caribou ranges throughout their current distribution in Canada, to the extent possible. [4]

What came next?

Even after this report was finally released, change has been slow and little is being done to protect caribou habitat across the country. To encourage faster progress, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) filed an application for judicial review in Spring 2017. [5] CPAWS argued that under SARA, the federal environment minister is required to form an opinion about whether or not the caribou’s critical habitat is protected and to report on any progress that has been made. This lawsuit prompted the Canadian Government to finally release the Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal population, in Canada for the period 2012-2017. [6]

This report reviews the 2012 Recovery Strategy’s goal of 65% undisturbed habitat and outlines the importance of range planning on a local level in order to meet this goal. It makes note of any progress that has occurred and, notably, highlights the fact that in 2012, 21 of 51 ranges had 65% or greater undisturbed habitat but that this number dropped to 19 of the 51 ranges by 2017. [7] Even this single statistic highlights the immediate need for increased habitat protection.

Additionally, the 2012 federal Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou included an important deadline. It called for the provinces to release their own range plans for the recovery of caribou herds on their respective provincial lands. The original deadline for the completion of these reports was October 2017, however this date has come and gone and most provinces are still nowhere close to meeting this deadline.

In fact, between 2012 and 2017, the habitat condition in the majority of Canadian caribou ranges actually declined instead of improved. Alberta was one of the provinces that did not complete their required plan by the deadline. [8] When Alberta finally released a plan, it was not specific to each range plan but was rather a draft plan, setting out some of the overall goals for caribou range planning in the province. You can find the draft plan here. As of early 2021, the provincial government has not yet released any final range plans.

Throughout the planning process, the provinces including Alberta have brought up some of the difficulties associated with the job of range planning. They argue that caribou ranges are large and that any areas currently supporting important industrial development cannot be easily protected. Many provinces have stated that the undoubtedly complicated feat of developing detailed caribou range plans, prohibited them from meeting their 2017 deadline.

Unfortunately, even if the job is difficult, caribou may not have time to wait.

Even now, one herd of boreal caribou living in Quebec is facing imminent extinction. This herd has dwindled to just 15 caribou who reside in an area less than half the size they inhabited just 20 years ago and their habitat continues to be threatened. In the spring of 2017, a Quebec zoo even offered to house this herd – arguing that this was their only option as this particular herd would never be able to bounce back in the wild. One issue with this proposal was that the zoo could only offer the caribou an area 4 square kilometers in size – a drastic drop from the 1,000 square kilometers enjoyed in the 1980s or even the approximately 400 square kilometers they rely on now. The offer also raised public concern that future caribou population declines would simply be dealt with by placing the animals in captivity rather than by fixing the root causes of the problem – such as habitat degradation. Eventually, the zoo’s offer was met with such intense public backlash that they rescinded their offer, leaving the caribou herd in the wild – hopefully with renewed public support for their survival. [9]

Courtesy Government of Alberta

It is largely agreed upon by the environmental community that caribou across Canada are facing significant threats and that significant and fast-paced change is needed if we will be successful in protecting this iconic Canadian species.

In Alberta, the situation is not any better. All of the woodland caribou herds in the province are declining in number as their habitat is declining in size and quality. Any chance of long-term survival will require Alberta to restore kilometers of disturbed habitat and protect even more.

You can learn more about the caribou in Alberta by checking out the websites of other provincial Environmental NGOs. Check out the website for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society here, the Pembina Institute here, the Caribou4ever campaign here, and the Alberta Wilderness Association here (although there are many more).
What do you think, if anything, should be done to protect habitat for caribou and other endangered species in Alberta?

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[1] World Wide Fund for Nature, “Living Planet Report Canada: A National Look at Wildlife Loss” (2017) at 13.

[2] Environment Canada, “Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer Tarandus caribou), Boreal Population in Canada” (2012) at 2 online:

[3] CPAWS, “A 2016 Overview: Another Slow Year for Boreal Woodland Caribou Conservation” (December 2016) at 1 online:  

[4] Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou.

[5] Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, “CPAWS takes federal Minister to court over Boreal Caribou Habitat Protection” (20 April 2017) online:; Peter Zimonjic & Susan Lunn, “Environmental group sues Catherine McKenna for failing to report on efforts to save caribou habitat” (20 April 2017) CBC News online:

[6] Environment Canada, “Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal population, in Canada for the period 2012-2017”, (2017) online:

[7] Environment Canada, “Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation for the Woodland Caribou at i-vi.

[8] Susan Lunn, “Woodland caribou continue to decline as provinces fail to meet protection deadline” (31 October 2017) CBC News online:

[9] Graeme Hamilton, “Driven to Brink of Extinction, wild Quebec Caribou herd being moved to a zoo” (26 April 2017) The National Post online: