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In-depth
Caribou in Canada
Across the country, caribou are struggling to survive in their ever-changing habitat. Facing a modern world, they are losing the battle.

Photo: istockphoto.com/Jaroslaw Schegietz  
Caribou subspecies: Barren ground caribou
The most numerous subspecies in Canada is the barren ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus). Males stand approximately 1.1 metre tall and weigh 100 to140 kilograms. In comparison to body size, barren ground caribou have the biggest antlers. Aside from a white muzzle, the face is a darker brown than the rest of the body. In summer its coat is light brown that transforms to a sandy-beige colour in winter. Barren ground caribou have distinguishing white patches of fur along the neck, underbelly, beneath the tail and above the hooves. The velvet grows in dark brown. They have an average lifespan of 4.5 years with a maximum of 15 years.

These caribou can be found across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut up to Baffin Island. Eight main populations make up the barren ground herd: Bathurst, Cape Bathurst, Bluenose East, Bluenose West, Beverly, Ahiak, Qamnirjuaq and Porcupine. In the 1960s, the herds were classified based on where they migrated to in winter; however, years later they were reclassified based on their calving grounds.


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The barren ground caribou is well known for its large migration. Snow and the need to find food dictates when the caribou begin migrating. During winter bulls and cows stay in separate herds and calves stay with their mothers — all settle in the forest, which provides shelter and an abundance of lichens beneath the snow. With the arrival of spring, the herds rejoin and make their way across the tundra to the calving grounds. Cows separate from the herd to calve and later rejoin the bulls for summer. The tundra provides caribou with various plants and grasses to feed on. After the autumn mating season, the caribou again disperse for the winter.

In the 1990s, northern industrialization led to studies that monitored the impacts of mining activities on these herds. By 2000, local residents helped to set up co-management boards to help address the issues affecting caribou populations. In 2004, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) categorized the barren ground caribou as of “special concern.”

NOTE:
Grant’s caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) are a distinct subspecies; however they are essentially barren ground caribou. Consisting mainly of Porcupine caribou, the herd inhabits the northwest corner of the Yukon and northeastern Alaska. Grant’s caribou have spring and fall migrations and do not currently have a status with COSEWIC.

Caribou ranges

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Caribou in Canada
Introduction Changing times Northern significance Caribou subspecies Map Photo Gallery
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Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Serv./B.Stevens
The name Caribou is possibly derived from the Mi'kmaq words “xailbu” or “kalibu” which translates to 'pawer' or 'shoveler.'
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