Threats to Woodland Caribou
and the Taiga

William O. Pruitt, Jr.
Professor and Senior Scholar

Department of Zoology,
The University of Manitoba,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
R3T 2N2




Pruitt, W.O., Jr. 1997. Threats to Woodland Caribou and the Taiga. Global Biodiversity 7 (2):25-31.



Today the woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) is in trouble, as is the whole boreal forest ecosystem in which it lives. I have a particular affection for R. tarandus because I realize that my own CroMagnon ancestors depended on them for meat, skins, bones, and antlers. In some archaeological deposits in France and Spain, 100% of the animal material is caribou, and the people who depended on them recorded their behavioural and anatomical observations with carvings and in charcoal and ochre mixed with caribou fat on the walls of stone in Dordogne, Bruniquel, Arudy, and other European sites (Pruitt and Pepper 1986). Woodland caribou are "our animal" and, if for no other reason, merit our love and care.

We have certainly not repaid them with love and care, but with persecution and theft of habitat. To compound the situation, we know rediculously little about them or how our actions are affecting them. Even though more scientific papers have been written about R. tarandus than any other Canadian mammal, almost all of them concern barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus) – which I prefer to call tundra caribou or snow caribou – the subspecies that performs the spectacular migrations of over 1,000 kilometres a year.

Woodland caribou, in contrast to tundra caribou, are bigger, darker, with heavier antlers, and even bigger hooves. They live in small groups that are either sedentary or perform only local movements. Because they are so scattered secretive; even estimates of total or regional numbers vary widely. They are subject to fires, logging, poaching, legal hunting by Treaty Indians; forest clearing for agriculture and grazing (Pruitt 1995), as well as unregulated tourist interference. Very few Canadians have ever seen a woodland caribou; most people have never heard of them. We could lose them tomorrow and nobody would be the wiser. How many people know that we have already lost the Dawson caribou, an endemic subspecies of woodland caribou, that was found on the the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia?

This paper focuses on the different threats that the woodland caribou face in 1997 and illustrates that in order to preserve this species, Canadians must preserve the boreal forest, or as it is technically known – the taiga. It is one of the most fragile forest ecosystems in the world. In turn, this paper shows that the taiga is more important as a carbon sink than as a source of trees for commercial returns.



This page created March 2, 1999.




Copyright © 1999 Taiga Biological Station, U/M