Species Profile

Woodland Caribou Northern Mountain population

Scientific Name: Rangifer tarandus caribou
Other/Previous Names: Caribou (Northern Mountain population),Woodland Caribou (Northern Mountain population)
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
COSEWIC Range: Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: May 2014
COSEWIC Status: Non-active
COSEWIC Status Criteria:
COSEWIC Reason for Designation:
COSEWIC History of Status Designation: The Northern Mountain population was designated Not at Risk in May 2000. This population was formerly designated as part of the "Western population"(now de-activated). Status re-examined and designated Special Concern in May 2002. Following the Designatable Unit report on caribou (COSEWIC 2011), a new population structure was proposed and accepted by COSEWIC. This new Northern Mountain population is composed of all 36 subpopulations in the previous Northern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou in addition to 9 subpopulations from the previous (2002) Southern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou, and was designated Special Concern in May 2014. The original Northern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou was de-activated.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Special Concern
Date of Listing (yyyy-mm-dd): 2005-01-12

Please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only. For the most up to date and accurate list of species listed under the Species at Risk Act, please see the Justice Laws Website.

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Related Species

Caribou ( Northern Mountain population ) Special Concern No Status

Quick Links: | Taxonomy | Photo | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Woodland Caribou

Woodland Caribou Photo 1



There is some uncertainty about how different groups of caribou are related to each other. Technological advances in genetic analysis have clarified some issues, but studies are ongoing. In the meantime, caribou are classified by ecotype (where they occur and how they behave) for their management and conservation. There are three major types of caribou in Canada: Peary, Barren-ground, and Woodland. The Caribou dawsoni subspecies, traditionally grouped with the Woodland Caribou, is extinct. Results of recent research indicate that the caribou in the Dolphin and Union herd are unique. They resemble large Peary Caribou, but appear to be more closely related genetically to Barren-ground Caribou. Peary Caribou, the smallest, lightest-coloured, and least understood of the three races, are found only on the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. They have access to a vast area of land, but only a limited portion contains suitable habitat. Barren-ground Caribou, slightly larger and darker, are found for much or all of the year on the tundra from Alaska to Baffin Island. They are by far the most abundant caribou; some herds in northern Canada number in the hundreds of thousands. They migrate seasonally, often along predictable routes, to the sparsely treed northern coniferous forests. Woodland Caribou, the largest and darkest-coloured, are irregularly distributed throughout our boreal forest and mountains from the island of Newfoundland to British Columbia. They are not migratory, but some herds, especially those in mountainous regions, move to different elevations with the seasons.



Caribou, ancient members of the deer family (Cervidae), are one of Canada’s most widely distributed large mammals. The name caribou is probably a corruption of the Micmac name “xalibu” — which means “the one who paws.” Caribou are unique among Cervids in that both sexes have antlers; however, some females have only one antler or lack them altogether. The antlers grow so rapidly that an adult male may show velvety lumps on his head in March and have a rack more than a metre in length by August. By February, all the caribou have lost their antlers. The Woodland Caribou’s coat is mostly brown in summer (more grey in winter), but the neck, mane, shoulder stripe, underbelly, underside of the tail, and patch just above each hoof are creamy white. The caribou is 1.0 to 1.2 m high at the shoulder, and mature individuals weigh 110 to 210 kg. The average weight for bulls is 180 kg; for cows, it is 135 kg. The antlers of the Woodland Caribou are flattened, complex, and compact relative to those of the Barren-ground Caribou.


Distribution and Population

Woodland Caribou occur in five of the eight National Ecological Areas recognized by COSEWIC, and in all jurisdictions in Canada except Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nunavut. The Northern Mountain population is comprised of 36 local populations in Yukon, Northwest Territories, and northwestern British Columbia. The Southern Mountain population is made up of 26 local populations in British Columbia and 4 in Alberta. The Boreal population covers a huge area from the Mackenzie Mountains in the northwest to southern Labrador in the east and as far south as Lake Superior. In Newfoundland, the Woodland Caribou can be found in 15 natural and 22 introduced local populations — both on the main island and on islands offshore. The Atlantic-Gaspésie population in Quebec is the only caribou herd that remains south of the St. Lawrence River. It is largely restricted to the summits of Mont Albert and Mont Jacques-Cartier in Parc de la Gaspésie on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. Woodland Caribou in the Northern Mountain population occur across much of the Yukon below 65? latitude. Bordered by Alaska in the west and the Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories in the east, their territory overlaps slightly with the Southern Mountain population of Woodland Caribou in northwestern British Columbia. The 2001 estimate reported for the Woodland Caribou Northern Mountain population is 44 000 — 24% of all Woodland Caribou in Canada. The population is divided into 36 herds; each contains more than 100 caribou and 20 have more than 500 animals. Population trends were: 4 increasing, 15 stable, 3 decreasing, and 14 unknown.



In winter, Woodland Caribou use mature and old-growth coniferous forests that contain large quantities of terrestrial and arboreal (tree-inhabiting) lichens. These forests are generally associated with marshes, bogs, lakes, and rivers. In summer, the caribou occasionally feed in young stands, after fire or logging. The average interval for habitats to return to their pre-fire state ranges from 40 to 80 years in the southern boreal forest in Alberta and Saskatchewan to 200 to 350 years in British Columbia. The Northern Mountain population of the Woodland Caribou winters in areas where the snow cover is relatively light. They are found at low elevations in mature Lodgepole Pine or spruce forests, where they feed primarily on terrestrial lichens and secondarily on arboreal (tree) lichens, or at high elevations on windswept slopes where terrestrial lichens are accessible.



The caribou is well adapted to its environment. It has a compact body, small ears, and a short tail — even the muzzle is covered in short hairs to protect it from the snow and cold air. The caribou‘s coat consists of a fine crimped under-fur with a thick layer of guard hairs on top. The guard hairs are hollow (like straws), and the air trapped inside acts as insulation to keep in the caribou's body heat. Caribou are excellent swimmers, and the hollow hairs help them to be buoyant in the water as well. Caribou have large feet with four toes. In addition to two small ones, called "dew claws," they have two large, crescent-shaped toes that support most of their weight and serve as shovels when digging for food under snow. These large concave hooves offer stable support on wet, soggy ground and on crusty snow. The pads of the hoof change from a thick, fleshy shape in the summer to become hard and thin in the winter months, reducing the animal’s exposure to the cold ground. Additional winter protection comes from the long hair between the "toes"; it covers the pads so the caribou walks only on the horny rim of the hooves. The rut, or mating period, for caribou usually occurs in late September and the first half of October. Caribou cows begin breeding as early as 16 months of age; most breed annually by the time they are 28 months old, typically giving birth to a single calf the following spring (mid-May to mid-June). The males may theoretically breed at 18 to 20 months of age, but most probably have no opportunity before their third or fourth year. During the rut, males engage in frequent and furious sparring battles with their antlers. Large males with large antlers do most of the mating. To calve, females travel to isolated, relatively predator-free areas such as islands in lakes, peatlands, lakeshores, or tundra. Group size is lowest during calving and in summer; it increases before the rut and may decline or increase over the winter. Group size at all seasons is larger for forest-tundra caribou than forest-dwelling caribou. Survival rates for calves average between 30% and 50%, but can vary from almost none to 100%. Many factors interact to determine calf survival, including quality and quantity of forage (for pregnant females and in the first year of life), number of predators, and weather. The potential for very high survival means that it is possible for local populations to increase rapidly when conditions are favourable. Caribou are grazing animals and feed on whatever plant material is available. Most feeding takes place in the morning and late evening, with periods of rest at midday and midnight. Caribou are the only large mammals that are able to use lichens as a primary source of food. They have specialized bacteria and protozoa in their stomachs that efficiently digest the lichens, allowing them to take advantage of this rich food source that is available during the winter when other foods are scarce. They also have an excellent sense of smell that helps them to locate lichens beneath snow. Caribou are preyed upon by wolves, bears, coyotes, cougar, and lynx, and are hunted by people. Caribou are constantly on the move. As a result, predators and parasites cannot predict where they will be found, and lichen ranges are not overused or trampled.


Habitat destruction, hunting, disturbance by humans (including construction of roads and pipelines), and predation (by wolves, coyotes, and bears) have all contributed to the decline of Woodland Caribou. In many parts of Woodland Caribou range, forestry practices and the spread of agriculture and mining have resulted in the loss, alteration, and fragmentation of important caribou habitat. Factors beyond our control, such as weather and climate change, are also influential. One of the current challenges in caribou management is to learn more about how these factors interact and how to decrease their threat to Woodland Caribou populations.



Recovery Progress and Activities

Summary of Progress to Date The decline of the Northern Mountain Woodland Caribou population has continued despite conservation efforts. Some communities have implemented limited entry hunting regulations to reduce impacts upon the population. Non-resident hunting of caribou is managed through quotas. All hunted caribou require compulsory inspection and a declaration form that summarizes the hunters’ harvest. Summary of Research/Monitoring The British Columbia and Yukon governments, and the Teslin Tlingit Tribal Council are progressing with a three year study focusing on seasonal movement, distribution, and population ecology of the Swan Lake caribou herd. Summary of Recovery Activities The Tourism Action Society in the British Columbia Kootenays is supporting stewardship activities by delivering technical information on best recreational behaviours. The White River First Nations are contributing to the conservation effort by fencing adult cows and their calves in an enclosed area to reduce calf mortality from predation by wolves and bears. Studies evaluating the effects of using lithium chloride to repel caribou from roadways are underway to reduce the number of caribou road collision mortalities. In the Yukon, there are public education campaigns directed toward modifying behaviour of off-road vehicle users while participating in viewing activities. Signage along roadways has been erected in areas frequented by caribou to reduce mortalities of caribou. URLs Northwest Territories Wildlife Divisionhttp://www.nwtwildlife.com/Publications/speciesatriskweb/woodlandcaribou.htm

Hinterland Who's Who: Caribou: http://www.hww.ca/hww2.asp?id=85



PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

9 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the woodland caribou Rangifer tarandus caribou in Canada (2002-05-01)

    Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are medium-sized (100-250 kg) members of the deer family. The taxonomy (classification) and systematics (evolutionary history) of caribou in Canada are uncertain. Based on mitochondrial DNA, caribou in North America evolved from two founding groups (clades) that differentiated in isolation during the last (Wisconsinan) glaciation. The southern clade supposedly evolved south of the continental ice sheet, whereas the northern clade was in a glacial refugium in Alaska and adjacent Arctic Canada. Populations that contained unique southern gene types were the Pukaskwa local population in Ontario and two in Newfoundland. In contrast, exclusively northern types occurred in four Yukon populations and in some forest-tundra and tundra ecotypes of barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus) in northern Canada. Most woodland caribou populations in the mountains of southern British Columbia (B.C.) and Alberta and in the boreal forest and taiga across Canada are mixtures of the two types. Some 'mixed' populations in the taiga exhibit two phenotypes and behave like the forest-tundra ecotype of barren-ground caribou.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Caribou, Northern Mountain population (2015-01-13)

    This population occurs in 45 subpopulations ranging from west-central British Columbia to the Yukon and western Northwest Territories. Almost all of its distribution is in Canada, where it numbers about 43,000 - 48,000 mature individuals. There is little long-term (three generations) trend information, and many current estimates are based on survey data more than 5 years old. Currently 2 subpopulations are thought to be increasing, 7 are stable and 9 are declining. The condition of the remaining 27 subpopulations is unknown. The two largest subpopulations comprise > 15,000 animals, or 26-29% of the estimated population, and are thought to be stable. About half of the 45 subpopulations each contain < 500 individuals. All stable or increasing subpopulations are located in the northern part of the range, whereas 9 in the southern part of the range have declined by 27% since the last assessment. The status of northern subpopulations may be compromised in the future because of increasing threats, particularly land use change with industrial development causing shifts in predator-prey dynamics.
  • Response Statements - Woodland Caribou (2004-04-21)

    A response statement is a communications document that identifies how the Minister of the Environment intends to respond to the assessment of a wildlife species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The document provides a start to the listing and recovery process for those species identified as being at risk, and provides timelines for action to the extent possible.

Management Plans

  • Management Plan for the Northern Mountain Population of Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada (2012-05-10)

    The Northern Mountain population of woodland caribou (NMP; Rangifer tarandus caribou) was assessed by COSEWIC in 2002 and listed under the federal Species at Risk Act as a species of “special concern” in 2005. The purpose of this plan is to summarize the threats facing Northern Mountain caribou, set out management goals and objectives and recommend a series of recovery measures for consideration by the responsible authorities for the management of the population’s 36 herds.


  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act (2004-04-21)

    This Order acknowledges receipt by the Governor in Council of the assessments of the status of wildlife species done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The purpose of SARA is to prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.
  • Order Amending Schedules 1 to 3 to the Species at Risk Act (volume 139, number 2, 2005) (2005-01-12)

    Schedule 1, the List of Wildlife Species at Risk of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), is amended by Order of the Governor in Council (GIC), on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, by the addition of 73 species. This Order is based on scientific assessments by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and follows consultations with provincial and territorial governments, Aboriginal peoples, stakeholders and the public, and analysis of costs and benefits to Canadians.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2013-2014 (2014-10-15)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to "assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species". COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings in this reporting year (October, 2013 to September, 2014) from November 24 to November 29, 2013 and from April 27 to May 2, 2014. During the current reporting period, COSEWIC assessed the status or reviewed the classification of 56 wildlife species. The wildlife species assessment results for the 2012-2013 reporting period include the following: Extinct: 0 Extirpated: 0 Endangered: 23 Threatened: 12 Special Concern: 20 Data Deficient: 0 Not at Risk: 1 Total: 56 Of the 56 wildlife species examined, COSEWIC reviewed the classification of 40 that had been previously assessed. The review of classification for 25 of those wildlife species resulted in a confirmation of the same status as the previous assessment.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act : Terrestrial Species - January 2015 (2015-01-13)

    The Government of Canada is committed to preventing the disappearance of wildlife species at risk from our lands. As part of its strategy for realizing that commitment, on June 5, 2003, the Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species provided for under SARA, also called the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Extirpated, Endangered and Threatened species on Schedule 1 benefit from the protection of prohibitions and recovery planning requirements under SARA. Special Concern species benefit from its management planning requirements. Schedule 1 has grown from the original 233 to 521 wildlife species at risk. Please submit your comments byApril 15, 2015, for terrestrial species undergoing normal consultationsand byOctober 15, 2015, for terrestrial species undergoing extended consultations.For a description of the consultation paths these species will undergo, please see:Species at Risk Public Registry website
  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species Under the Species At Risk Act: March 2004 (2004-03-03)

    The Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003 as part of its strategy for the protection of wildlife species at risk. Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, hereinafter referred to as the 'SARA list'. Canadians are invited to comment on whether all or some of the species included in this document should be added to the SARA list.
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