Caribou resting on an ice patch in the mountains.

Caribou in Canada

When we think of caribou, many of us picture massive herds on epic migrations in the north.

But there are actually two main types of caribou: barren-ground caribou, who live on the tundra (these are the ones who migrate) and boreal or woodland caribou who prefer the forest.

All caribou in Canada are at risk of extinction.

Canada has 11 different caribou population units — caribou that live in different environments. About half of those units are endangered, meaning they are the closest to local extinction. They include herds in southern B.C. and in southern Alberta, and the once mighty George and Leaf River herds of Labrador and Quebec.

Historically, the range of woodland caribou covered more than half of Canada and into the northern United States. Today, woodland caribou have disappeared from most of their southern range.

In B.C., some populations of woodland caribou are known as southern mountain caribou. Out of 17 herds of southern mountain caribou, only 13 remain, and all are highly endangered. Four southern mountain herds in B.C. are extirpated, or locally extinct, including two herds that became extirpated in 2019.

Why are caribou endangered in Canada?

Caribou evolved to escape predators by spreading out on vast, intact landscapes. But human development — including oil and gas operations, industrial logging, mining and road-building — has fractured their habitat.

After forests are clear-cut, new growth attracts moose and deer, and wolves follow them into caribou habitat, a pursuit made all the easier by roads, seismic lines and other linear disturbances.

In an attempt to save caribou herds that are close to local extinction, the Alberta and B.C. governments use the controversial strategy of killing wolves, a main predator of caribou.

During the winter of 2019-2020, the B.C. government spent almost $2 million to kill 463 wolves in the habitat of 10 endangered southern mountain caribou herds.

One of those herds, known as the Hart Ranges, is contending with the loss of critical habitat for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, as well as new clear-cuts approved by the B.C. government.

From October, 2018, to July 4, 2019, the B.C. government approved 78 logging cutblocks in the Hart Ranges herd habitat, allowing industrial logging in a total of 5,290 hectares, an area almost three times the size of the city of Victoria.

What is being done to save caribou in B.C.?

In 2020, the B.C. government, federal government and local First Nations signed a landmark agreement aimed at recovering six caribou herds in the Peace region.

The agreement includes the eventual creation of a new 206,000-hectare provincial park — two and a half times the size of Manning Park — and places interim protections on another 550,000 hectares in the mountainous area east of Mackenzie and west of Hudson’s Hope and Chetwynd.

The federal and provincial governments also signed a second, far less detailed caribou agreement that covers the remainder of B.C.’s imperilled southern mountain caribou herds. That agreement does include any habitat protections or proposed restrictions on industrial development.

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