Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Canada's Woodland Caribou

Sierra Club of Canada News Release

Monday, May 29, 2006

Governments failing to save Canada’s woodland caribou: New research report

Ottawa – As the number of Canada’s Boreal woodland caribou continues to dwindle, federal, provincial and territorial governments are failing to take action that could safeguard their survival, according to a study being released today by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and Sierra Club of Canada.

Canada’s forest-dwelling woodland caribou were declared “threatened” under the federal Species At Risk Act (SARA) in 2002. There are an estimated 184,000 forest-dwelling woodland caribou left. This emblematic species depends on intact forested ecosystems and is a key indicator of the health of Canada’s boreal forest.

Woodland caribou need very large ranges -- on average 9,000 km2 per herd -- to thrive. They don’t adapt to changes in the forest caused by activities like forestry, mining and energy development, and even low levels of industrial development within woodland caribou habitat may threaten the viability of a herd. As a result of the expansion of industrial resource extraction, woodland caribou have already lost at least one-half of their historic range in Canada.

“With industrial incursion into Canada’s remaining intact northern boreal forest region growing yearly, woodland caribou will go the way of the coastal rainforest’s spotted owl unless governments take bold action now. We’ve concluded that no jurisdiction is even close to having adequate measures in place,” say Gillian McEachern of CPAWS and Rachel Plotkin of the Sierra Club, co-authors of “Uncertain Future: Woodland Caribou and Canada’s Boreal Forest.”

“The status report reveals that there are two critical things that need to happen: the establishment of a formal network of large, protected areas of intact boreal forest and wetlands that are off limits to industrial development, and better resource management in tenured areas,” add McEachern and Plotkin.

The researchers reviewed specific actions by provincial, territorial and federal governments that, if taken, would optimize chances of survival for Canada’s boreal woodland caribou. They assessed governments’ records of establishing legally protected caribou habitat, adopting land-use plans that incorporate caribou habitat needs before allocating intact wilderness to industry, policies and regulations within the managed forest and recovery plans mandated under SARA and drafted by provincial governments. .

“By and large it’s a disappointing picture. So far none of our governments has made a commitment to protect woodland caribou’s remaining intact boreal habitat, and in most provinces, land use decisions are being made before plans for large-scale ecosystem conservation have been created. In other cases, such as Alberta, governments are ignoring the advice of their own advisors and permitting new industrial development that will assign woodland caribou populations to the history books,” say the authors.

The researchers did note a few encouraging signs. For example, Ontario adopted a policy in 1999 that requires forestry companies to maintain caribou habitat, however, in practice there is still logging in important caribou habitat in the province. In Labrador, a government-approved land use plan for one large area, developed in partnership with the Innu Nation, incorporates the objective of protecting that region’s still healthy woodland caribou herds.

They also point to key opportunities for progress in the coming year, such as the proposed expansion of the Nahanni National Park Reserve to include the entire South Nahanni watershed, which would protect nearly the entire range of the herd in that region.

“It’s not too late for governments to reverse the forest-dwelling woodland caribou’s fate—in fact, there is a tremendous opportunity in the north to show the world that we can be leaders in big-scale wilderness conservation--if we act now. But current management approaches clearly aren’t working,” say McEachern and Plotkin.


Contact: Katie Albright, Sierra Club of Canada, Communications Coordinator, 613-241-4611

Full report available at

CPAWS is Canada’s community-based, non-profit wilderness protection organization. With 13 chapters across Canada and 20,000 members, it has helped to conserve over 40 million hectares of Canada's most treasured wild places since 1963. It is a signatory to the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework, along with other leading conservation organizations, resource companies and First Nations.

Sierra Club of Canada has been working to protect the integrity of our global ecosystems since 1963. We are a national non-profit organization, made up of 10,000 members, supporters, and youth affiliate members all across Canada. We have five chapters across the country in addition to dozens of local groups in communities all across Canada from Cape Breton to Vancouver Island.

Woodland Caribou Background Information

Forest-dwelling woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are supremely well adapted to life in northern forests. Members of the deer family, woodland caribou have a short stocky body, fur-covered short wide ears and a flat muzzle, a long thick winter coat with semi-hollow hairs that protects them from both cold and wind and large concave hooves (with shrinkable foot pads to protect against frostbite) that help them prance over soft snow and muskeg.

Forest-dwelling Woodland Caribou:

  • Inhabit Canada’s boreal region from Yukon to Newfoundland.
  • Live at low population densities. This means that for herd of woodland caribou to be viable, they require large areas, with the average area occupied by a herd of 9000 km2.
  • Are the only large mammal that can survive on a diet of lichens, found primarily in older coniferous forests, which make up 60-70% of their diet.
  • Reproduce slowly and suffer high calf mortality rates, with only 30-50% of calves surviving their first year. Most predation occurs during the snow-free months, just prior to calving for females and within 6 weeks of birth.
  • Need large tracts of undisturbed (usually coniferous) forest to avoid predators.


  • The main cause of the woodland caribou decline is industrial development that:
    o Increases access of predators (wolves and humans)
    o Reduces food sources (lichen in older forests) and habitat for giving birth.
  • Even low levels of industrial activities can threaten woodland caribou and there is no evidence of caribou re-inhabiting an area following industrial activities. Studies have shown that caribou can be negatively impacted by activities 2-10 km away.
  • There are estimated to be 184,000 forest-dwelling woodland caribou left in Canada, 54% of these are on the island of Newfoundland.
  • Woodland Caribou have been forced from 50% of their historic range within Canada.
  • Woodland Caribou have been losing on average 35,000 km2 of range every decade for the past 110 years in Ontario.
  • The Boreal population of Woodland Caribou was designated as “threatened” under the federal Species At Risk Act in 2002.
  • Most mitigation measures implemented by provinces have been experimental, and have worked under the premise of maintaining current logging rates.
  • It is estimated that forest-dwelling woodland caribou in Alberta will be extirpated in 37 years without action to protect their habitat. In Ontario it is estimated the same fate will meet woodland caribou in 100 years or less, if industrial activity continues in its current trajectory.

Sierra Club of Canada National Office

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