Canada is caribou country

April 28, 2014

It has been 4 months since the release of CPAWS’ report on provincial efforts to recover Canada’s threatened Woodland Caribou populations. Manitoba was praised for strong commitments they planned to incorporate into their recovery strategy. We have worked directly with the province on developing the strategy and we understand that it will be released very soon.  We anticipate that it will be the best strategy for caribou recovery in Canada.

“Canada is caribou country”
by Kate Harris

Photo: Pierre Maheu

Not far from the northern frontier of British Columbia, the place I call home, is the small community of Carcross, its name derived from “caribou crossing.” Less than a century ago, locals observed thousands of caribou migrating across a natural land bridge between two Yukon lakes. Across Canada, caribou formerly populated more than half the country’s tundra and boreal forest habitat, meaning these elegant, velvet-antlered ungulates were once as fitting a national symbol as the beaver. Unquestionably, Canada was caribou country.

Not anymore. The Carcross herd was decimated during the 19th century Klondike Gold Rush, with only about 450 remaining today. Caribou herds nationwide––particularly the boreal woodland caribou––have suffered catastrophic declines due to human causes, namely habitat fragmentation from industrial development. Today scientists estimate that only 30% of Canada’s boreal woodland caribou populations are self-sustaining. The future for caribou seems bleak.

But at least one province, Manitoba, seems to be determined to stop the boreal woodland caribou’s slide toward extinction.

The Manitoba government will soon release their Provincial Caribou Recovery Strategy, a plan to protect the status of woodland caribou based on rigorous science and indigenous traditional knowledge. In the Strategy, Manitoba is expected to commit to ensuring that at least 65% of caribou habitat within provincial caribou management units remains free from disturbance.

Expected to include a key objective of conserving large, intact caribou habitats, this strategy will prove key to the caribou’s survival, and Manitoba will take pride in setting the national precedent for the conservation of this species. We can only hope other provinces and territories follow its lead, particularly British Columbia.

In a recent “report card” issued by CPAWS and the David Suzuki Foundation, which assessed provincial and territorial efforts to conserve Canada’s declining caribou populations, British Columbia earned an embarrassingly low grade for a province that prides itself on being “super, natural,” as its tourism tagline claims. To blame for the poor showing is BC’s own version of a provincial caribou recovery strategy––the Implementation Plan for the Ongoing Management of Boreal Caribou in British Columbia, or BCIP, released in 2012.

The report card describes the BCIP as “inadequate,” noting that the province appears resigned to accepting the continued decline of caribou throughout their ranges, rather than determined to maintain or enhance self-sustaining populations. BC’s woodland caribou are concentrated in the northeastern part of the province, a region under severe pressure from the oil and gas industry, and the government appears to be unwilling to restrict this industry in order to protect Canada’s most charismatic ungulate.

On behalf of the boreal woodland caribou: it looks promising, Manitoba. I hope you set the bar for other provinces and territories. As for British Columbia, it’s time to get serious about protecting this species, for Canada was once and should again be caribou country.

Kate Harris is a writer with a grudge against borders and a knack for getting lost. Named one of Canada’s top ten adventurers by Explore magazine, and winner of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, her essays, articles, poetry, and photography have featured or are pending in publications like The Walrus, Sierra, Orion, and The Georgia Review, and cited in Best American Essays. She lives off-grid in a log cabin in Atlin, BC. Her website is

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