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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.

Northern significance: Residential & Commercial
More than 2.4 million caribou inhabit Canada, from the southern border to Ellesmere Island and from the Yukon to the east coast of Newfoundland. But despite the large number, caribou herds are facing hard times – population declines have put many caribou herds at risk.

Photo: iStockphoto/J. Schegietz
Most notably threatened are the barren ground caribou, a subspecies that comprises about half of all caribou in Canada. Found throughout the northwestern regions, their numbers have declined from 40 to 90 percent in the past decade.

These waning numbers are of concern because losing the caribou, especially in the northern regions of the continent, would have sweeping consequences. Caribou are the primary source of meat for most northern mainland residents and they contribute largely to the northern economy through wildlife tourism and recreational hunting. More importantly, the animals play a unique role in the history and culture of many First Nations and Inuit.

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service   
Northern residents
Dene, Inuvialuit, Métis and non-aboriginal peoples from almost all northern communities depend on hunting caribou to feed their families. A minimum of 11,000 caribou are harvested every year, equating to an economic value of $17 million. Cut out the caribou and these people would have to rely more on the less nutritionally valuable and more costly food shipments from Southern Canada. No other animal can replace the caribou in its role as provider.


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Photo: iStockphoto/L.Young
Local business
Caribou are an important part of the northern tourist industry, attracting naturalists, photographers and recreational hunters. Many northern residents’ livelihoods rely on the state of the caribou herds and the declining numbers has led to government-imposed hunting restrictions that are hurting local businesses.

Jim Peterson, an outfitter and president of the Barren Ground Caribou Outfitters Association in Yellowknife, is concerned about the reduced tag allocation given to outfitters. The number of caribou allowed per outfitter has decreased from 132 to 83 in 2007, and the government has submitted a proposal to further reduce the quota to 35.

“That would mean over $300,000 in lost revenue,” says Peterson, “which would effectively put us out of business.”

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service   
Beyond economic value
The caribou is more than a source of nutrition and income, says Monte Hummel, environmentalist, president emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, and author of an upcoming book on the state of the caribou in Canada. “The caribou are a source of cultural pride. They are historically and spiritually significant.”

To the Dene people, the caribou is the most important wildlife species and is central to their legends, stories and spiritual rituals. “Losing the caribou would be like cutting themselves off from their past,” says Hummel, “and they want to keep the caribou around to be a link to their future. The future of the north and future of caribou are one in the same.”

By Emily Fobert
Caribou ranges

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Caribou in Canada
Introduction Changing times Northern significance Caribou subspecies Map Photo Gallery
Video Gallery
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Serv./B.Stevens
In Asia and Europe, caribou are called reindeer. Overseas, many reindeer are domesticated and herded.
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