Caribou across Canada

  • by Michael Morris, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks
  • December 12, 2001

Woodland caribou

Woodland caribou are sparsely distributed throughout Canada’s boreal forests and mountains. The caribou found here in the Columbia Mountains are a type of woodland caribou referred to as “mountain caribou” because their behaviour sets them apart as an ecotype unique to the wet belt of the interior of British Columbia. Virtually all of the 2300 mountain caribou in the world are in south-eastern British Columbia (2001 data). A small band persists in Idaho. The closest groups of caribou to Golden are found in the Beaver Valley / upper Duncan area and in Mountain Creek in Glacier National Park.

In early winter, the mountain caribou of southern BC depend on the canopy of huge old growth cedar and hemlock trees to intercept snow, making foraging easier. These caribou prefer to eat mountain boxwood and other evergreen plants and shrubs, until deep snow makes them too difficult to find. They then switch to hair lichen which hangs from tree branches. But most hair lichen grows too far above the ground for caribou to reach. So in early winter they wander seeking lichens blown down by windstorms. More lichen is available to them in older forests where rotten branches break off or whole trees fall over. I’ve also seen them eating lichen from felled trees on the edge of clearcuts, after the loggers have gone home for the day.

Unlike any other animal, mountain caribou migrate in mid-winter from the lower valleys to the sub-alpine forest, but only after the snowpack firms up and accumulates to a depth of two meters or more. They use this deep snowpack to raise them to lichen on the higher branches which they could not otherwise reach. Also, the brown hair lichen, which is preferred by caribou over the green hair lichen, grows better in subalpine conditions.

Barren-ground caribou

By far the most numerous caribou sub-species is the barren-ground caribou of the arctic. Some herds in northern Canada number in the hundreds of thousands and are known to migrate great distances, often in predictable ways. They made life possible for aboriginal people in the north for thousands of years by providing a source of meat and skins for clothing and tents. Their bones and sinews provided the material for tools and thread.

Barren-ground caribou remain an important source of food, because groceries in remote northern communities are expensive. Just as important, caribou hunting is regarded as an essential link with native traditions, a source of pride in a time of change as northerners cope with modern influences. Recently established Tuktut Nogait National Park in the Northwest Territories protects an important caribou calving area.

Peary caribou

The least known and least numerous are the Peary caribou which are typically lighter colour and smaller than other caribou. Their range is confined entirely to the Canadian arctic islands. Though the total area of the arctic archipelago is vast, suitable habitat is not, due to large areas of rock and icefields, a situation similar to the Columbia and Rocky Mountains.

In recent years in the high arctic, the temperature has risen above freezing in October. The surface snow melts and re-freezes into a layer of nearly impenetrable ice, sealing off ground lichens and plants upon which these caribou feed in winter. Their numbers have decreased to the point where they are threatened with extinction. Parks Canada is considering a national park on Bathurst Island to protect Peary Caribou habitat, but creating a park will not help caribou with problems associated with a warming climate.

Species at risk like mountain caribou, Peary caribou, and 385 other species are listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC). The committee is comprised of representatives from federal, provincial, territorial and private agencies as well as independent experts, who report on the status of endangered species in the hope of keeping caribou and others from existing only as images on our coins. Their extensive reports are available at


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