Caribou through the ages | Research In Action | Recovering a species at risk | What can you do?

Mountain caribou
©Alice Weber

Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks protect significant areas of the world’s only temperate inland hemlock-cedar rainforest. The lush old growth forests of this natural area support a rich diversity of plant and animal species. However, these two national parks are not large enough to protect these ecosystems from the increasing pressure of land use in the Columbia Mountains region. The decline of woodland caribou in this region is an important indicator of large scale change in the local ecosystem.

Caribou found in the Columbia Mountains belong to the southern mountain population of woodland caribou. They are distinct from other herds in their unique behavioural adaptations to the wet climate of this ecosystem. In early winter, they migrate to lower elevations where the old growth forest canopy reduces the amount of snow on the ground, making foraging easier. By mid-winter the caribou migrate up to the sub-alpine forest where the deep snow pack allows them to reach lichens growing high on tree branches. They will descend to the valley bottoms again in early spring to feed on fresh growth, returning to the high alpine meadows for the summer.

The southern mountain population of woodland caribou has declined across western Canada. Listed as a Threatened Species under Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), southern mountain caribou range includes parts of Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Jasper and Banff National Parks.

Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks make up only a small piece of woodland caribou habitat in the Columbia Mountains region. The caribou’s requirement for large, connected areas of old growth forest is challenged by the pressures of human land use. Conservation of woodland caribou in this area will require continued collaboration with provincial and local stakeholders to develop precautionary human use management and caribou conservation strategies.

Caribou through the ages

Caribou are highly adapted to snow and cold weather conditions. Their insulating coats and large hooves allow for travel through deep snow. Caribou would have been among the first animals to return to this part of the world at the end of the last Ice Age, around 9,000 years ago. In the late 1800’s, the completion of the railway marked the beginning of pressures related to increased development on woodland caribou populations. These pressures included hunting, habitat change from resource extraction (logging, mining, hydroelectric reservoirs) and transportation corridors. Conservation measures introduced in the 1930’s placed limits on caribou hunting, but their numbers have never fully recovered. No caribou hunting has been allowed in this area since 1996.

Currently the largest threat to caribou populations in the area is habitat loss. Since the 1970’s, hydro-electric reservoirs and logging have reduced low elevation old growth forest habitat. The younger forests that emerge after logging favour deer and moose populations and support increased predator populations. This increases the chances of caribou encounters with predators. The fragmented landscape can also lead to caribou expending greater energy to reach suitable habitat.

Recently, the expansion of recreation in the subalpine and alpine areas of the Columbia Mountains is causing greater direct disturbance of caribou populations, potentially displacing them from prime habitat. Displacement may result in increased exposure to avalanche risk and the expenditure of more energy to locate and forage for foods in areas away from humans and predators.

Mountain caribou

Research In Action

In an effort to manage resources on an ecosystem basis, Parks Canada has participated in caribou research and monitoring projects with provincial agencies since 1992. Partners in research include the BC Ministry of Forests, the BC Ministry of Environment, and the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program. On-going research in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks is helping us better understand the ultimate causes of caribou decline in the area and to identify appropriate conservation actions.

How many caribou are there?

The caribou that range through Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks and the adjacent provincial lands are referred to as the Columbia South herd and the Duncan herd. As only a portion of their range is within the national parks, population monitoring is done in cooperation with the BC Ministry of Forests and BC Ministry of Environment. Recent census results (2011) suggest that only approximately 7-9 caribou remain in Columbia South herd, down from approximately 100 caribou in 1994. A census of the Duncan herd found 7 caribou in 2010, and 15 in 2008.

Mapping important habitat

In 2004, Parks Canada began a partnership with the Province of British Columbia and several forestry companies to map important caribou habitat in Mount Revelstoke National Park in order to better understand where and how caribou use the landscape in the Columbia Mountains. These maps are used by Parks Canada as a basis for caribou conservation efforts including seasonal area closures, redirecting recreation from areas used by caribou and managing forest fires to minimize impacts to caribou habitat. A similar map for Glacier National Park is forthcoming.

Caribou habitat map
Important southern mountain caribou habitat.
Click to view larger version /
©Parks Canada

Parks Canada cannot recover the Columbia South or Duncan herd of woodland caribou on its own. This is why Parks Canada staff are committed to working with the Province of British Columbia, First Nations, industry and the public to develop land-use management policies, both inside and outside national parks, to support the conservation of woodland caribou.

Recovering a species at risk

Five key threats have been identified as contributing to declining caribou populations in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks. Based on these threats a number of conservation actions have been implemented, and other actions are being investigated.

1. Habitat Loss

  • Threat: Habitat loss and fragmentation is seen as the leading cause of caribou population declines in the Columbia Mountain region. While habitat loss is not a significant threat within the national parks, caribou habitat in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks accounts for 30% of the range of the Columbia South herd.
  • Action: Parks Canada is working collaboratively with neighbouring land managers to develop conservation strategies to protect habitat for the Columbia South herd.
  • Action: Fire management plans for both parks identify the protection of caribou habitat as a top priority.

2. Small Population Effects

  • Threat: As the number of caribou in a herd declines to low numbers, this downward trend is more likely to continue. At its current population size, the Columbia South herd is unlikely to recover on its own. When populations reach such critically low numbers, they are at a greater risk of being extirpated by events such as predation, an avalanche or disease.
  • Action: Parks Canada is working with provincial partners and local stakeholders to try to reduce the threats to the Columbia South and Duncan herds and to protect the remaining caribou. We are considering all options for augmenting local populations, and will work in cooperation with provincial partners to prioritize and assess feasibility. Scientific risks and benefits will be thoroughly reviewed prior to any augmentation.
  • Action: Parks Canada is working in partnership with the province and researchers to monitor caribou populations in the Duncan and Columbia South herds. Efforts to minimize disturbance during surveys will continue to be made - i.e. we will not survey during high risk avalanche conditions.
3. Primary Prey and Predator Abundance

  • Threat: The altered landscapes surrounding Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks have created better habitat for other prey species. Moose and deer, in particular, are found in higher densities in the young forests created through logging and other industrial activities. The moose and deer populations support more predators and increase the potential for caribou to encounter those predators.
  • Action: Parks Canada will work in partnership with provincial partners i.e. monitor deer and moose populations in the area.
4. Direct Human Disturbance

  • Threat: Caribou have been killed on the highway and the railway, and are vulnerable to displacement from preferred habitats by human activity.
  • Action: Through the habitat mapping project and telemetry data, the Mt. Klotz area in Mount Revelstoke National Park was identified as important caribou wintering habitat. To prevent the disturbance of caribou by winter recreationalists and to permanently protect their habitat, a permanent seasonal closure has been implemented. Other actions include not ploughing the Meadows in the sky Parkway in Mount Revelstoke National Park, limiting tracksetting to lower elevations and reducing snowmobile use to critical park operations only.
  • Action: In summer, efforts to minimize stress on Caribou include: closing the Meadows in the Sky Parkway overnight, reducing the braiding of trails and a commitment to not expand the level of human use or footprint in the area.
5. Facilitated Predator Access

  • Threat: Packed trails from skiing and snowmobiling may lead predators into these otherwise inaccessible areas and increase the risk of predation on caribou.
  • Action: Includes the Mt. Klotz closure, not ploughing the Meadows in the sky Parkway, limiting track-setting to lower elevations and reducing snowmobile use to critical park operations only.

What can you do?

Learn more about woodland caribou

Conservation Strategy for Southern Mountain Caribou in Canada's National parks
Conservation Strategy for Southern Mountain Caribou in Canada's National Parks
© Parks Canada

Be aware of how your actions can impact caribou

1. Hiking

  • Stay on the main trails and if you see caribou give them space. Be aware that although caribou may seem unconcerned or even curious about you, your presence could cause them to abandon important feeding grounds or push them into areas where they are more at risk of running into predators.
  • Avoid hiking in caribou habitat during calving (late May and early June) and rutting (late September) season. These are important times of the year for caribou populations and any disturbances could have more significant impacts.
  • Keep dogs on leash while visiting and recreating in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks so they do not chase after wildlife like caribou.

2. Skiing

  • Be sure to check for seasonal closures before heading out to the backcountry. Mt. Klotz in Mount Revelstoke National Park is permanently closed to backcountry skiing.
  • If you want to support caribou conservation efforts, the best choice is to avoid caribou habitat altogether in winter as your ski or snowshoe tracks could inadvertently lead predators into these relatively inaccessible areas or intimidate caribou from using these areas.

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