Select Page

Kids Can – Issue #3

Forest Dwelling Woodland Caribou in the Boreal Forest

Have you ever heard of Santa and his 8 caribou?

Would you believe that caribou and reindeer are the same species.? It’s true.

Caribou is the term used in North America and reindeer is the term used in other parts of the world.

The caribou is part of the deer family and that family includes: white-tailed deer, elk and moose.

What makes a caribou a caribou?

  • both female and male caribou can grow antlers while only the males of other members of the deer family can grow antlers.
  • caribou have big, wide hooves that help them walk in snow (creating a snow shoe effect)
  • caribou hooves have a hollow interior that make them great for digging in snow for food
  • caribou have long legs and are great runners, reaching speeds of up to 80km/hr (50mph)

There are different types (sub-species) of caribou in Canada. Some have big populations, while others are struggling to survive.

The forest dwelling woodland caribou, in the boreal forest, is considered “threatened” – meaning it’s a species at risk of becoming extinct.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

The timber wolf is the forest dwelling woodland caribou’s main predator – but is it the biggest threat to this caribou? No! Unfortunately, we humans are the biggest threat to the caribou.

How Are Humans a Threat ? Humans, working in the boreal forest, have caused changes to the caribou’s habitat that have put the caribou (and other species) at risk. Logging, mining and oil and gas exploration have caused loss of habitat, and habitat fragmentation. What’s habitat fragmentation? When companies build roads into the boreal forest they fragment the habitat. The new landscape attracts deer and moose and those species attract wolves – the caribou’s main predator. Roads also make it easier for wolves to get to caribou.
500px-canis_lupus_lycaon_03

If all this work in the boreal is hurting the caribou, why don’t we just stop all human activity in the boreal? Unfortunately, we all rely on the natural resources found in the boreal. (We’re not ready yet to give up the oil and gas that heat our homes and fuel our cars. And we’re not ready to go without paper or building materials that come from trees.)

Many people are working together to try to help the forest dwelling woodland caribou survive. Aboriginal people, living in the boreal forest, have lots of knowledge about caribou behavior and migration patterns. This knowledge is being used to help determine which areas of the forest are most important to protect.

Students to the Rescue! Is it really possible for kids to help save a herd of caribou? Yes!

The Chisana caribou herd is a very small herd that ranges between Yukon and Alaska. Aboriginal people and others who worked on the land noticed the herd’s numbers dropping, dramatically. Calves (baby caribou) simply weren’t surviving. The herd’s numbers went from 1800 in 1987 to about 300 in 2003.

A joint Yukon–Alaska recovery program came up with a solution. The program involved capturing pregnant caribou and allowing the cows (mother caribou) to have their calves in a large protected pen – where no predators could get to the calves.

caribouandrickTo transport caribou to the protected area by helicopter, the antlers are trimmed. This allows the caribou to fit into the helicopter more easily and makes it safer for those who are helping. Photo: Thomas Jung

Pen/protected area, Chisana Caribou Project
Photo: Kathi Egli
The fabric for the inside of the fence is made from a special type of cloth. There is an electric fence outside the fabric fence. The researchers cut out a small square in the cloth where they could peek through to see how the caribou were doing without being seen. They spent a lot of time patrolling the fence line ensuring no predators got in. In the last year of the project, a black bear managed to get into the pen but was removed before any caribou were hurt.

This is what you might see if you peeked through a small square in the cloth fence.
Photo: Kathi Egli

Mother caribou with calf in the protective pen, Chisana Caribou Project
Photo: Kathi Egli

That’s when students stepped in to help. What exactly did they do? They collected tons of lichen for the caribou to eat. Lichen is a very important part of the caribou’s diet. The hard work the students did made all the difference. The calves did well – in fact 75% of calves living in the protected area survived, in comparison to the 10% survival rate of Chisana calves in the wild. Now this little herd has a stable population again!

Scientists are still studying the effectiveness of this type of strategy – but in this case the herd was helped. signature

dscn0264 Students helped collect tons of lichen – the caribou’s favourite food! Photo: Kathi Egli