Caribou (Eastern Migratory population)
Scientific name: Rangifer tarandus
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Photo credit: Kim Bennett
“Special Concern” means the species lives in the wild in Ontario, is not endangered or threatened, but may become threatened or endangered due to a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats.
There are two distinct populations of caribou in Ontario: the Eastern Migratory population and the Boreal population. Both populations of caribou are listed as species at risk in Ontario.
Date added to the Species at Risk in Ontario List
August 1, 2018
What it looks like
Caribou are a medium-sized member of the deer family. They have large crescent-shaped hooves that are well suited to walk on snow, dig for food and swim. Both males and females can grow antlers, and the appearance of their antlers varies with gender, habitat type, age and season. Generally, the Eastern Migratory population are light to medium brown in the summer and almost white in the winter.
Where it lives
The Eastern Migratory population of caribou typically uses tundra and forest-tundra transitional areas along the Hudson Bay coast during the spring and summer periods, and they move south to boreal forest habitat in the fall and winter, although individuals can be found in all habitat types at all times of year.
In Ontario, movement and habitat use of the Eastern Migratory caribou population is complex. During the spring calving season, male caribou are thought to remain in the forest and forest-tundra areas, while females move further north to the calving grounds. Following calving, the caribou form large, loosely-knit groups containing both male and female animals of all ages. By late summer, the large herds separate into smaller groups, including pairs of female caribou and their calves. After spending approximately six months in the open tundra and forest-tundra transitional area near the coast, the caribou gradually move south and inland in the fall, reaching the most distant points from the coast in mid-winter before slowly returning to the coast the following spring.
Where it’s been found in Ontario
In Canada, the Eastern Migratory population consists of four subpopulations: Cape Churchill, Southern Hudson Bay, Leaf River and George River. The Southern Hudson Bay subpopulation inhabits Ontario and is found along the coastal Manitoba-Ontario border, extending southeast to Cape Henrietta Maria.
The Eastern Migratory caribou range in Ontario also extends southwards, partially overlapping with Boreal caribou range in winter. Over the past half-century, the summer distribution of the Eastern Migratory population has shifted eastward while the location of wintering areas have remained relatively unchanged. In 2011, it was estimated that there are over 16,000 Eastern Migratory caribou in Ontario.
What threatens it
Caribou are sensitive to disturbance. The Eastern Migratory population may be impacted by industrial disturbance and development such as mining and the creation of road networks, including winter roads. The use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in the central portion of the Hudson Bay Lowlands has increased, with caribou avoiding areas frequented by ATVs. Besnoitia tarandi, a parasite that causes poor coat condition and sores, has been found in subpopulations east of Hudson Bay, although it is unknown how severe its impact is on caribou.
Populations are generally limited by the availability of food, but harvesting of animals can also impact numbers if populations are small or declining.
Climate change may affect the Eastern Migratory population of caribou in the future by changing the quality of tundra habitat and decreasing the availability of lichen as the amount of woody shrub cover increases. Climate change may also affect fire cycles. Increases in fire severity or frequency can have significant effects on lichen-bearing tundra.
Actions we are taking
Special concern species do not receive species or habitat protection, but may be eligible for grants to help with their protection and recovery.
What you can do
Report a sighting
Become involved, learn about recovery and conservation efforts, and report caribou sightings to your local Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry office.
Report a sighting of a species at risk animal or plant to the Natural Heritage Information Centre. Photographs with specific locations or mapping coordinates are always helpful.
Volunteer with your local nature club or provincial park to participate in surveys or stewardship work focused on species at risk.
Be a good steward
If you are camping or canoeing in caribou country, avoid setting up camp in areas that may serve as caribou calving sites. Such activities disturb this sensitive species and the smell of food may inadvertently attract predators to calving sites.
The Ontario Species at Risk Stewardship Fund supports public involvement in species at risk protection and recovery activities, including those that help caribou.
Report illegal activity
Report any illegal activity related to plants and wildlife to
- Caribou are excellent swimmers, and their hollow hair makes them extremely buoyant. They often flee into the water to escape predators.
- Unlike moose and deer, female caribou have only one calf each year. They never have twins or triplets.
- Caribou are important socially, culturally, and economically for many Aboriginal cultures and have names in many languages, including Reindeer.