Woodland caribou

Jasper National Park

Quick facts

Eats grasses, shrub leaves, herbs, mushrooms, lichen
Weighs 100 to 210 kg
Sounds include snorts and clicks of the tendons in their feet
Lives 8-15 years
SARA status: Threatened (2003)
COSEWIC recomended status Endangered (2014)

Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are members of the deer family. They are larger than a deer but smaller than an elk. Caribou have the biggest antlers and hooves in the deer family relative to their body size. Both male and female caribou can grow and shed antlers each year, though at different times. Their large hooves act like snowshoes, helping them travel in deep snow, dig for food, and even paddle while swimming.

Mountain caribou in Jasper are usually found in small groups. During long, cold winters they survive by digging through the snow to eat lichens. In June, females isolate themselves in more remote areas to give birth to a calf. This protects their young calves from predators.

Caribou that live in Jasper National Park are part of a subgroup of woodland caribou herds called southern mountain caribou. Many southern mountain caribou herds are small and endangered. There are now three herds in Jasper National Park: the Tonquin, Brazeau, and À la Pêche. There have been no signs of the last members of a fourth herd, the Maligne, since 2018.

Where they live

Southern mountain caribou herds are found in the mountain regions of Western Canada. Mountain caribou live in old-growth forests and high alpine areas to avoid predators. They move between alpine areas in summer and subalpine forests in winter.

In Jasper National Park, caribou can be found in the Tonquin Valley, the Brazeau mountain ranges near the Icefields Parkway, and on either side of Jasper National Park’s northern boundary.

Why they are at risk

Parks Canada has identified five past, current, or future threats for caribou in Jasper National Park. The small population size of the Tonquin and Brazeau herds is currently the most significant and the most difficult threat to address. There are not enough reproductive females in each herd for the populations to recover on their own.

Small population effects

The Tonquin herd is estimated to have 49-55 caribou and the Brazeau herd to have fewer than 15 caribou. These two herds have had low, but stable numbers since 2015.

The number of breeding female caribou is now so small – an estimated 9 in the Tonquin and less than 3 in the Brazeau – that these herds will not produce enough calves each year to grow the herds.

Small herds are especially vulnerable to predators, disease, and accidents like avalanches. The Tonquin and Brazeau caribou herds in Jasper have become too small to recover on their own and their future is precarious.

Altered predator-prey dynamics

The primary reason for declining mountain caribou populations in the last century was an imbalance in delicate predator-prey relationships. In Canada, this is often caused by human activities that disturb or change a landscape, such as industrial development.

Because the national park is protected, the cause of changing predatory and prey populations is different. Wildlife management practices introduced by the government in the early 1900s created an overabundance of both elk and wolf populations for decades. This had long-term effects on caribou that continued well into the 2000s.

Human disturbance

People can displace caribou from areas that are safe or that have good food sources. Caribou in the park can be disturbed by trail users, dogs, aircraft, or be killed in vehicle collisions on roadways.

Predator access

Caribou have evolved to survive in the deep snow that drives predators to lower elevations where prey are easier to find and hunt. Trails packed by skiers and snowshoers can help lead wolves into these otherwise inaccessible areas.

Habitat loss

Caribou rely on old-growth forests as their primary winter habitat. Mature forests are becoming more vulnerable to insect outbreaks (like mountain pine beetle) and wildfire as a result of climate change and historical practices of putting out all wildfires. Human activities on neighbouring lands can also have cascading effects on predator-prey dynamics within protected areas like national parks.

How we are helping

Since 2006, Parks Canada has taken steps to reduce threats to caribou and create better conditions for caribou survival and recovery. Elk and wolf populations are now at levels that are no longer a threat to caribou herds. Unfortunately, the Tonquin and Brazeau herds are now so small that they cannot recover on their own.

Read more about Parks Canada’s caribou recovery plans here.

Building the population

Parks Canada has developed a proposal to rebuild the Tonquin herd, and eventually the Brazeau and Maligne herds, by adding animals to the population through conservation breeding.

This proposed program would involve capturing a small number of wild caribou from regional herds in Alberta and British Columbia, breeding them in a protected facility in Jasper National Park and then releasing young animals born in the facility into the wild Tonquin herd.

Wildlife management

Parks Canada has implemented wildlife management practices to lessen human influence on wolf and elk populations.

This included moving elk away from the town where they take refuge from predators. We also began incinerating roadkill rather than discarding it into gravel pits where wolves could access it and supplement their diet.

Elk and wolf populations are now at levels that would no longer be a threat to healthy, self-sustaining caribou herds.

Protection from human disturbance

To avoid disturbing caribou, dogs, bicycles, and landing and takeoff by hang gliders and paragliders are not allowed in caribou habitat.

In spring, speed limits on highways are reduced to 70km/h in areas where caribou may cross the road.

Helicopters, airplanes, and drones must follow guidelines that keep them away from wildlife.

Preventing predator access

From November 1 to May 15, access to occupied caribou ranges is closed. We also no longer set cross-country ski tracks or permit the use of snowmobiles (for park or outfitter operations) in caribou habitat.

This prevents people from creating packed trails that could help wolves travel into important winter caribou habitat.

Habitat protection

In Jasper National Park, critical habitat for caribou is protected by law under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. The national park provides a large protected area of secure habitat for caribou, where disturbance and habitat fragmentation are minimized.

We assess projects in the park, including prescribed fire, for their impact on caribou and their habitat.

In 2015, Marmot Basin Ski Area’s leasehold was reduced by 17%, creating 118 hectares of wilderness habitat to benefit caribou and other wildlife. Ski lift development in off-piste ski runs is also prohibited.

Research and Monitoring

Parks Canada has an ongoing caribou monitoring program that collects information about caribou, deer, elk, and wolves in a variety of ways including aerial surveys, remote cameras, radio collars, and scat DNA analysis.

This information helps us understand the relationships between these animals, how they use habitat in the park, and trends in their populations over time.

A Parks Canada biologist collects frozen caribou scat. The scat samples are then sent to a laboratory where DNA is extracted and analyzed. By collecting this data each year, biologists can identify individual males and females in the herd. They can also estimate how many animals are in the herd, their age, and sometimes their movements.

How you can help

When planning a trip, research closure areas and dog restrictions in caribou habitat. If you get the opportunity to see a caribou, give them space.

To report caribou sightings or people bringing dogs into restricted caribou habitat, please observe, record, and report this information to Parks Canada Dispatch at 780-852-6155. Visit our web page with essential information for residents and businesses.

Learn more

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