Woodland caribou, also known as boreal caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), are found in Canada’s boreal forests and the open taiga forests along Hudson Bay.
Unlike caribou that inhabit the tundra, woodland caribou do not migrate long distances between seasons, instead staying in the forest, either alone or in small groups. They need large contiguous areas of suitable habitat with low levels of disturbances.
Woodland caribou consume tree and ground lichens in winter, and lichens, grasses, sedges, forbs, horsetails and shrub leaves in summer. They tend to avoid cleared areas where shrubs favoured by moose and deer are more abundant.
Threats to woodland caribou
The main threat to woodland caribou is habitat deterioration, either from fragmentation, degradation or loss. Habitat fragmentation can also contribute to an increase in predation.
The species is adapted to an ecosystem in which forest fires are the main type of disturbance. However, human disturbances such as forest harvesting and road networks fragment woodland caribou habitat, creating open areas and extensive young forests that attract species such as moose and deer, which in turn attract increased numbers of predators.
Other factors, including hunting and poaching, noise and light disturbance from resource industry developments, parasites and disease, and weather and climate change, may also be having an impact on woodland caribou populations.
As a result of all these factors, woodland caribou are listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act, as well as under provincial legislation in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Labrador, Northwest Territories and Quebec (in French only).
Northern Ontario field study
Canadian Forest Service researchers at the Great Lakes Forestry Centre are collaborating with scientists from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the University of Guelph in a large field study of woodland caribou in northern Ontario. Initiated in 2009, the study is investigating the effects of various habitat disturbances on woodland caribou populations.
Radio-collared caribou. Photo: Mickey Gauthier
More than 150 woodland caribou and about 40 wolves are being tracked over a three-year period in three 10,000 km2 areas that border the current northern limit for commercial forestry activity in the province. The animals are being tracked using radio-telemetry to gather data on patterns of movement, home range use, predation risk, number of offspring and survival. Some of the radio-collars are equipped with video cameras that are providing important never-before-seen information about caribou behaviours, movements, and diet selection.
The data will be used to determine how woodland caribou populations are influenced by forest composition, age and origin, as well as road density, food availability and predator/prey densities. Computer models will be developed and tested for their ability to estimate potential caribou response over time to various forest disturbances and alternative forest management policies, and to evaluate the cumulative effects of various human and natural disturbances.
The data and models from the study will contribute to management decisions aimed at protecting woodland caribou in Ontario and across Canada.