Woodland Caribou: A Canadian Idol

January 10, 2011

If you are Canadian, chances are you have a caribou in your pocket.  Since 1937, we have celebrated the woodland caribou by featuring its image on the “tails” side of millions of Canadian quarters.

Woodland caribou are fascinating dwellers of Canada’s boreal region that boast many remarkable yet largely unknown attributes. Their hooves can spread out to the size of dinner plates, acting as paddles for swimming and snowshoes in the winter. They have hollow hairs that insulate them and keep them buoyant as they travel through often frigid waters to their island calving grounds. Caribou are also the only ungulate in which both sexes sport antlers.

Although most of us will never see a woodland caribou in the wild,  due to their shy and elusive nature, the caribou is a treasured Canadian icon — nature’s very own Canadian Idol — that lives from coast to coast across our nation. However, the flip side of the coin tells a troubling story that reveals why the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is working across our nation with governments, First Nations,  industry and citizens to ensure we don’t lose this majestic species and their boreal home.

Caribou in peril

Today caribou herds are in big trouble across the length and breadth of the Canadian boreal forest. In the last century, woodland caribou have lost half their Canadian range. In some parts of the country, such as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. they’ve already been eliminated, due to human actions that have caused mass habitat destruction.

In Manitoba, they have disappeared from the southern boreal,  including places such as Whiteshell Provincial Park. Of the 11 caribou ranges identified in a 2009 Environment Canada report, seven are classified as either “not self-sustaining” or “may not be self sustaining if further degradation occurs.”

Sadly, the woodland caribou’s decline continues as the boreal forest habitat that they rely on is being lost in ever-greater amounts. In their southern ranges industrial clear-cut logging is decimating their habitat. Throughout caribou territory, mining, hydro dams and power corridors, oil and gas mega-projects and industrial road networks are carving through intact boreal landscapes.

Barometer of boreal health

Woodland caribou are highly sensitive to human disturbance and require large tracts of unbroken boreal wilderness to find enough food and avoid predators, because of this they serve as a barometer of the health of the boreal forest. Where the caribou remain, the boreal is healthy; where they have gone, the boreal has been negatively compromised for all life that depends on it — including human life.

As the world’s largest source of fresh water, the northern lungs of the planet and a massive storehouse of carbon — which helps to slow climate change — a healthy boreal is critical for all life on Earth.  Nationally, all Canadians rely on the boreal for food, supplies,  medicines or a job. Boreal communities need the boreal to continue traditional activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering as well as to diversify local economies through sustainable eco and cultural tourism ventures. If we conserve the large unbroken boreal wilderness that woodland caribou need, we protect what we all require for a healthy future.

The boreal region: Canada’s vast northern wilderness

The boreal region drapes over the northern shoulders of the globe like a green veil.  Canada’s boreal is the largest continuous expanse of wildlands left on Earth and it houses 25 per cent of the world’s remaining original forests.

The boreal is a spectacular mosaic of forests, wetlands, lakes,  rivers and bogs. It supports a diversity of tree species such as pine,  spruce, poplar and birch and teems with wildlife such as lynx, black bear, moose, fox, owls, eagles and a variety of ducks and songbirds —  and we all know about the eminent polar bear. Many of Manitoba’s polar bears spend the summer in the boreal region. Manitoba’s north is in the heart of the world’s largest section of intact forest.

Half or more

For a fragile ecosystem like the boreal to keep doing its important job every thread within its fabric must remain strong. Conservation science tells us that we must protect the majority of it in an intact state if we wish to maintain its integral role in Earth’s life support systems.

In a 2007 letter sent to all Canadian governments, 1,500 highly respected scientists from more than 50 countries around the world recommended preserving at least half of Canada’s boreal forest in protected areas while allowing only carefully managed development on the rest. This is the absolute minimum protection required to ensure the boreal remains fully functioning so it can continue to provide ecological services such as clean water and oxygen production.

Industrial activities and their associated road networks that blaze forward, without adequately considering boreal habitat, are the primary causes of degraded boreal forest regions that can no longer support caribou. Although efforts to save woodland caribou and the boreal are growing quickly, the standard approach by governments and industry is still to build first, then think about the environment later. Sadly,  initiatives designed to repair caribou habitat are failing as we cannot recreate what nature has taken billions of years to build. Protecting large unaltered areas of the caribou’s boreal home is the only safe bet.

With only about six per cent of Canada’s boreal forest permanently safeguarded from industrial developments, we need to act fast in protecting the lion’s share of it so it remains a wellspring of biodiversity and continues to help slow climate change and provide a home for caribou and all its wildlife. As a step in getting there, an immediate halt to logging, road-building and other developments is needed in intact caribou habitat until the government is able to demonstrate that adequate measures have been put in place to ensure long-term caribou survival.

Manitoba’s opportunity: A healthy future for people and caribou

In Manitoba, the good news is that our cup is half full as we still have a wealth of woodland caribou and unbroken boreal wilderness. To ensure it remains that way we need to move quickly in permanently securing most of our boreal region from rapidly encroaching industrial activities. To ensure a healthy boreal, it’s paramount to change the status quo so that conservation and community planning is complete before any further industrial expansion.

The first step is for the Manitoba government to announce a commitment to permanently protecting the majority of our remaining wild boreal region. Determining the areas where industrial developments will be prohibited, and where they will be allowed, must be accomplished through an inclusive process that seeks input from all Manitobans and in-depth consultation and full support of boreal First Nation communities. To get it right, it’s critical that we utilize the best available science and Indigenous knowledge.

Keeping our boreal region healthy will bring woodland caribou, all Manitobans and the Earth a large step closer to a bright and sustainable future. Together, we can create a Manitoba that we can all be proud to pass on to future generations.

Ron Thiessen is the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) – Manitoba chapter.

Help Keep Manitoba Wild


CPAWS Manitoba has helped establish 23 parks and protected areas thanks to people like you.

With your help, we can protect half our lands and waters for future generations of people and wildlife.