Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA) and the woodland caribou

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This conservation resource was created by Malcolm Bissell; Ye Shen; Gabriel Wan; Olha Yamelnytska. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

The woodland caribou is a species that can be found in most provinces throughout Canada. Although they cover a wide range, the population numbers of this species have been on the decline in recent years. so much so that the woodland caribou are now on the endangered species list. The boreal population faces the fear of endangerment the most and its low populations can have negative impacts on the entire ecosystem. If numbers continue to dwindle, predators of the woodland caribou such as wolves will lose a large part of their diet, and they too could potentially see their population size decrease or other food for wolves such as rabbits will have their species become endangered since foxes will begin to hunt them more often with the caribou being gone. If no remedial actions are taken, then industries that wish to use the land the caribou reside on will be the beneficiaries, while the health of the ecosystem and the creatures living within it will certainly suffer.

Mountain-type Woodland Caribou. By ThartmannWiki via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) is a federal legislation passed in 2002 and was enacted in 2004. Its main objectives are to “prevent endangered or threatened species from becoming extinct or extirpated, help the recovery of endangered, threatened and extirpated species, and manage species of special concern to help prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened. “ The decision to declare a species as endangered under SARA depends on the government, based on scientific assessments and public consultation. Once a species is declared, the Act demands recovery plans to be made, the steps required to increase the population of that particular species. In addition to assessing different types of endangered species, SARA also promotes stewardship, taking care of nature by committee. Keeping natural resources such as water and air clean can be a highly influential factor towards regenerating the population of any type of species. [1]

The status of the Woodland Caribou under the Species At Risk Act (SARA), is “Endangered (Atlantic-Gaspésie population), Threatened (Boreal population), and no status (Northern Mountain and Southern Mountain Populations).” [1] The status of the Woodland Caribou under the 2014 COSEWIC assessment is “Endangered (Atlantic-Gaspésie population and Southern Mountain population (BC, AB)), Threatened (Boreal population), and Special Concern (Northern Mountain population (YK, NT, BC)).” [2]

The Woodland Caribou population is spread out throughout Canada. This type of species primarily exists in the Boreal forests of all provinces and territories except Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Its total estimated population is 1.5 million in Canada. Sizes range from 1 to 1.2 meters high at the shoulder, and 110 to 210 kg in weight. Its average life span is 10 to 15 years. The Woodland Caribou is one of three main types of Caribou in Canada. The other two being Peary and Barren-ground Caribou.

Description of threats

Over the past 20 years, the population of this species has decreased by approximately 30%. The woodland caribou pose a variety of threats, with some having a greater impact of their population than others. These mammals do not migrate far and are impacted greatly if their direct environment is affected; alteration of their environment can be both natural and human caused. When being assessed by Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), fragmentation was found to be the largest threat to the caribou population. It is noted as well, that varying regions have different threats that effect the caribou and their habitat. [3]

Habitat alteration

Boreal pine forest after fire 2. By Hannu via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The habitat could be altered due natural and anthropogenic disturbances and human caused events have a greater impact on the wellbeing of the mammals and the population. Fragmentation due to natural occurrences such as forest fires are a natural process and are required to regenerate a forest[3]. The result of a forest fire are large open areas. Having a younger forest creates a desirable habitat for moose and deer which poses a high threat to caribou [4]. When high number of deer and moose come into an open forest area, their predators follow. Predation due to the alteration of the habitat that is caused by humans makes a huge misbalance in the ratio of prey to predator, which in result will cause an unnaturally high decrease in the population. Fragmentation caused by clear cutting for the use of forestry, gas and oil impedes on the mobility due to lack of access to paths. Lack of access leads to isolation: the land within the barriers becomes genetically homologous. This places a threat to long term survival and in some cases can lead to local extinction. [5]

Diseases and the introduction of new species

The current threat or parasites on the woodland caribou and are not severe, but it is anticipated to be a high level concern for the future. “Deer in some parts of Saskatchewan are infected by meningeal worm and chronic wasting disease, both of which are lethal to caribou. Neither has yet been found in caribou in Saskatchewan though both pose a threat.” [5] These worms do not have an effect on their host, the white tailed deer therefor are transported easily around a given area. Evidence suggests that the populations of caribou are low and are avoided in areas where there is an abundant population of white-tailed deer[5]. Because the caribou are found sparsely around due to them traveling in smaller groups, this helps prevent a large portion to be infected.

The threat of an invasive species that damages the forest poses a larger threat, compared to direct invasive species/parasites. Parasites such as as the mountain pine beetle could indirectly have a large effect on the wellbeing of the caribou as this invasive species can defoliate and kill of large portions of a tree species.[3] Having their habitat damaged will cause the caribou to relocate and the threat of them coming into contact with a rich white-tailed deer population or an infected population of caribou is much higher.

Impacts of climate change

The effects of climate change has a direct effect on the habitat of the woodland caribou. Rising temperatures is a cause for the disappearance of the lichen-rich environments, the main food source that the caribou depend on. During colder, winter months the air can hold more moisture which causes the there to be more snow as well as freezing rain; dropping temperatures causes a larger buildup ice on the ground which proves problematic for the caribou when they are trying to reach their lichen-rich old resources. With dramatic decrease in temperature during the winter follows a more severe summer: due to drought, the water supplies are being limited to the caribou as well as for the plants that grow. The rise in temperature will directly effect the frequency in forest fires, which diminish food sources and the habitat of the caribou. [6]

Other threats

Highway 60 passing through the boreal forest in Algonquin Park (September 2008). By Dimana Kolarova via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0

Other threats that cause a decline to the population of woodland caribou is industrialization; this can be roads, pipe lines and power lines. The creation of roads and paths creates easy access for predators such as wolves. In addition, roads allow access for vehicle traffic which often scare the caribou and force them to move their location. When assessed by SARA, the threat of vehicle collisions is seen as a low threat; with pollution and noise disturbance caused by the vehicles to be more of a concern. [3]

Habitat Management/Landscape Level Planning

The processes of Habitat Management and Landscape Level Planning involves making so the woodland caribou's ecosystem is able to support their population both now and in the future. [3] As many threats both natural and human-caused has led to the dwindling of the woodland caribou's population, the planning has to take in to account how to slow down both causes. Actions taken under this technique involve setting up range plans and protected areas, observing and making studies of these ranges, and taking action based on those observations [7]

Political- this option requires potential cooperation between multiple bodies of government, as a provincial government an federal government may need to coordinate with one another to decide on who holds and enforces jurisdiction in certain ranges across the country. This is imperative as confusion on who is responsible for what areas, can lead to the endangerment of more woodland caribou (Government of Canada 2012).

Legal-The formation of range plans deals with many legal aspects, as the Minister of Environment has to identify what legislation if any protects the woodland caribou from anthropological threats, for example, what specific law under the SARA secures the woodland caribous' safety [3]. If it is found that a range is in need of legislation to protect it from outside threats, then in some instances the government would need to pass legislation protecting that area from human development and influence as seen in the image to the right.

Lacanja burn. By Jami Dwyer via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Financial- Habitat Managment and Landscape-level planning can both result in spending a fair amount of capital. Individuals will need to be paid for their studies and observations of the ranges, as well as those who will be needed to enforce the law in the protected areas from outside threats such as hunters or loggers. These processes require cooperation from a large group of people, and that can be costly.

Economic-Creating protected areas can have a negative economic effect in the short run since it prohibits industry such as logging and road development from expanding. In addition, range plans take in to account future human developments, so they too will suppress the development of those industries for an extended period of time

Mortality and Population Management

This process involves investigating woodland caribou activity and interactions as well as collaborating with different public groups to find what leads to an increase in deaths of this species as well as testing ways to decrease those numbers.


One way to find the behavior of the woodland caribou and the factors leading to its death, studies involving putting trackers on both wolves and caribou have been done to study factors such as "forest composition, age, and origin, as well as road density, food availability and predator/prey densities"[4]and see how they impact the longevity of this species. Cameras have been placed on caribou as well to get a more detailed and in-depth look at the life of the caribou, giving us useful information to create methods to decrease the mortality rates.

Native hunters, Formosa. By John Thomson via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0


Certain groups of aboriginals "have longstanding spiritual connections with caribou, so the continued persistence of caribou is critical to the ongoing health and wellbeing of indigenous communities in the North."[8] Government legislation prohibiting the hunting of Caribou has the potential to take away a large part of aboriginals culture and tradition shown by how hunting animals surrounds their lives in the image to the right.

====Legal==== The passing of legislation will be necessary for this process, as it would require the prohibition of hunting of woodland caribou in particular ranges where the numbers are depleted. This passing could prove to be difficult since it is hard to take a right away from a group when they have held it for some time.

====Financial==== The studies and the equipment required to run them will certainly cost money, as well as enforcing rules and regulations passed to protect the caribou and their ecosystem. The implementation of plans for regulating woodland caribou predators like wolves or bears will require funds as well.

Population Monitoring

Population Monitoring is a process in which scientists gather information on the size of the population of the species, as well as the individual health of specific individuals within that species (Government of Canada 2012). To complete this process successfully, numerous pieces of technology are required, as well as collaboration between different groups.

Culturally: The whole goal of this process is to get to know more information on the species they are studying, and for the case of the woodland caribou, some groups Indigenous people living throughout Canada know a great deal about it. The Woodland Caribou serves as "food, a spiritual ancestor, a gift from the creator, a totem spirit, and a neighbor" [9]. As this creature plays such a large role in the lives and culture of this group of people, they serve as a great source of information on the Woodland Caribou. In addition, the technologies used in this process must be careful not to infringe on the cultural importance of this animal, as it could lead to the aboriginal people losing a part of their lives.

Technical: This process revolves around tracking the caribou and using that data to create new boundaries for them, as well as ways to limit the negative impacts of human interaction[3]. To do this, trackers are placed in the caribou to monitor their movement behavior and trends, as well as test and check-ups on the caribou to see the effects of pollution disease [3].

Political: Collaboration between different levels of government is a necessary aspect of this process. With the information gathered from the tracking of the caribou, transboundary ranges are set up which requires a group effort from both provincial and territorial governments. Each level of government needs to share each other's information as well as plan the area of the transboundary area [3].

Economic: All of the tests and studies being done on the woodland caribou requires funding, as technological equipment is being used to gather this information. In addition, the ones running the studies and processing the data need to be paid as well, especially as these studies can last quite some time such as a year.

Federal, provincial, territorial governments

The governmental agencies are of the utmost importance to woodland caribou conservation. They not just make legislative frameworks and broad policies (e.g. The Wildlife Act and Species At Risk Act) for caribou population management and recovery, they also are concerned as intermediary strengthening links between the authorities and the local, the stakeholders and the land owners. Similarly, corresponding restrictive and punishment measures are enacted to sanction those groups who do illegal hunting or are non-compliant to laws. Due to the fact that the governments possess a significant leadership role in making plans regarding lands management, financial proposal, resources and caribous conservation as well as have jurisdiction and other powers to arbitrate other actors, they are supposed to promote transparency and accountability of laws avoiding corruption and bureaucratism[4]. As a result the authorities will be regularly required to report their financial and conservation results and other material information about their political affairs to the public and to stakeholders. On the other hand, when planning and implementing measurements, the governments are supposed to make explicit researches by asking first nation or local industry in advance because of different habitat and environmental situation. And engaging with aborigines and local community is critical to identify caribou range, to restore destructed caribou habitat and to know the true situation of caribou situation about population dynamics, predators and food as well, which promotes the effiency of policies. [10]

Indigenous people

As for the aboriginals, inheriting the knowledge about caribou life history, habitat utilization, population dynamics and conservation approaches from ancestors or past experience, they have advantages over others in the promotion of the recovery strategy(Government of Canada,2017).What is more, construction suggestions in regard to restore damaged habitat can also be obtained from local community, which reduces the expenditure, increases the efficiency and establishes better protection zone. For instance, proper roads, trails and seismic line activity are able to be constructed in reasonable area, avoiding wildlife-human conflict(Governemrnt of Saskatchewan).When it comes to indigenous people, what they gained from coordinated approach are not just the job opportunity and extra earnings, their spiritual culture, stewardship of land and customary rights are respected and consistent with caribou recovery goals(Government of Canada, 2017). Meanwhile, indigenous people can also be concerned as regulators of power as well as guard of nature which means they are encouraged to report corruption and present emergency circumstances of caribou population toward superior department.

Although their previous knowledge is useful for conservation, they are supposed to acquire new conservation theory in order to accord with globalization trend. Focusing on homeland environmental conservation is essential, while concerning global environmental issues is also required.


Just as indigenous people play an important role in caribou protection, stakeholders including local industry, private landowners and environmental associations contribute a lot to measurement consultation and implementation. Collecting annual review about caribous from other associations and comparing to local conditions, stakeholders sum up the points which are useful for local conservation[4]. And they also invest in and conduct caribou research in order to maintain the population [11].Likewise, rights and obligations of stakeholders ought to be supervised.

The woodland caribou’s declining population, due to overwhelming natural and anthropogenic disturbances has caused them to be placed under the Canadian Species At Risk Act (SARA) Due to the possible and detrimental impacts that the extinction could have on other species found in their ecosystem. As formally states, taking out a key prey for the wolves could cause a shift in the food web and the trophic levels which in result could cause other species to be placed in danger of extinction such as rabbits as they would become the wolves main food resource.

It is recommended that cooperation between bodies of government and well as private parties, participate to enforce jurisdiction of the conserved habitats of the caribou. More financial help toward preserving the habitat as well as funding research towards the impacts of industrialization, such as logging is important to help save the caribou, as well as the entire ecosystem. It is also key for government officials and private parties to acknowledge the cultural and spiritual connections that the Indigenous communities have with these mammals; working with individuals that have have passed down and first hand knowledge of the species and their habitat could be beneficial in passing legislation.

  1. 1.01.1 Species at Risk Act. Parks Canada. 2017. Retrieved from:
  2. 2014 Annual Report. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Retrieved from:
  3. Recovery Strategy for the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou), Boreal population. Government of Canada. 2012. Retrieved from:
  4. Woodland caribou. 2017. Natural Resources Canada. Retrieved from:
  5. Conservation Strategy for Boreal Woodland Caribou in Saskatchewan. 2013. Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. Retrieved from:
  6. Kyle Joly and David R. Klein. Complexity of Caribou Population Dynamics in a Changing Climate. US National Park Service. Retrieved from:
  8. Devlin, C. (2011, January 14). Aboriginal Rights and Cumulative Effects: Are Woodland Caribou the new Canaries in the Not-So-Proverbial Coal Mine? Retrieved April 10, 2018, from
  9. Suzuki Foundation, D. (2013, July). The Cultural and Ecological Value of Boreal Woodland Caribou Habitat. Retrieved April 10, 2018, from
  10. Woodland Caribou - Wild Life Species at Risk. Government of Saskatchewan. Retrieved from:
  11. British Columbia's Woodland Caribous. Naturally Wood. 2017. Retrieved from:

Post image:  By ThartmannWiki via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0