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Woodland caribou have been thriving in the Canadian boreal forest for centuries on end. Their ideal habitat is a large area of undisturbed land with older conifer forests and lots of ground lichen where they can breed and live mostly free from predators.

Rob Rempel, a retired research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources who has an interest in ecology, says the caribou adapted to living in this northern environment.

“They have very large hooves… with lots of hair on them and that allows them to track on the snow and to move quite effectively in this wooded area and escape wolf predation,” he said.

However, their numbers are dwindling — due to climate change and human encroachment — changing the delicate balance between them and wolves and moose.

Rempel said the relationship between climate change and the balance among animals in the boreal forest is intricate. 

The caribou numbers are declining — and it’s a complex story as to why.

“It’s not a direct response to temperature and precipitation, but actually an indirect response to moose,” Rempel said, adding the animals are moving north due to changes in their “climate envelope” — a term that describes the combination of temperature and precipitation.

“Each species has a kind of a set of conditions which they are adapted to,” he said “And if, for some species, the climate envelope is changing … it’s shifting northward, generally. And, as a result, some species are declining and other species are increasing.”

As the moose population increases further north, so too does the wolf population, he said.

Wolves go after moose, which are larger than caribou, giving wolves a lot of food, which helps increase their population. The larger number of wolves then are also taking down caribou, which is what’s driving that population down, Rempel explained.

The progression of human infrastructure, such as roads and highways into the boreal forest, has also allowed the wolves to move more freely, making it easier for them to hunt caribou. As the caribou still reside in forests, they have the same amount of difficulty trudging in the snow.

“And what happens is the wolf will walk along these… roadways, and they’ve now got an advantage because they’re not walking in the deep snow, you know, but they’ve got this more compact kind of pathway, this route that they can take, and then they’ll catch the scent of a caribou as they navigate along this and they can very effectively move along,” Rempel said.

Caribou and human connection

The Inuit population living in Northern Ontario have a generational connection with caribou.  From the fur to the bone, these animals have been a traditional food for the Inuit, according to the book, The Caribou Taste Different Now: Inuit Elders Observe Climate Change.

But the title, which comes from a quote by Edward Flowers, an Inuit Elder from the Nunatsiavut region, just off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, highlights the impact of climate change.

“The caribou taste is really different now. When they’re in the country, way inland, they eat lichen, but these years they go more on the beach and they’re eating more trees here. And when you eat [caribou meat] the taste is like the trees here. When they were up in the country eating lichen they were more healthy to eat.”

Declining caribou numbers could have further effects on those living in the north, Rempel said.

“The caribou has always been an important part for northern communities, both for their clothing and food,” said Rempel. “So [there are] big impacts on northern communities if caribou are lost.”

Rempel said it’s possible some local populations of caribou could disappear entirely.

“I don’t think as a species, it’s going to become extinct. But I think there is definitely the possibility that certain ranges, especially woodland caribou, you know, could become either extinct or threatened from extinction. And part of, you know, that depends on how effectively humans deal with climate change.”

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