Caribou in snow, Susan Morse
Caribou in snow © Susan Morse

Reindeer - an Enduring Holiday Icon - Face Increasing Threats


Justina Ray
President & Senior Scientist





Reindeer are an enduring and beloved Christmas icon

Reindeer are an enduring and beloved Christmas icon. Although Dasher and Dancer only slightly resemble their wild cousins, caribou are strong and graceful. Letting our imagination run wild, we might be forgiven for thinking that reindeer – or caribou as they’re called in North America –seem to “fly” as they run across frozen lakes.

The holiday season offers one of the few opportunities for many to make a quick connection between our celebrated reindeer of song and book and their real-world equivalent in the wild. As a conservation biologist, I have the special privilege of witnessing their movements across boreal forest expanses during my winter survey research.

Trained as a carnivore biologist, my experiences in northern boreal forests of Ontario began over 10 years ago in work focused on finding wolverine tracks in the snow. During these searches I would often encounter caribou – or their tracks – in the same remote areas. Caribou and wolverine are both species that require large wild areas and have relatively low tolerance to land clearing, roads, and habitat fragmentation.
Over time, I have become increasingly engaged in caribou research and conservation. This research has become especially urgent in the context of human society’s increasing appetite for natural resources and subsequent expansion into previously wild areas. In addition to having less space, these majestic animals must adapt to a changing climate and the consequences of unpredictable weather patterns. Several caribou populations in the Rocky Mountains of BC and Alberta have disappeared or number fewer than 10 individuals, and leases are still being granted for energy development within habitats that remain.

Three Christmases ago, I authored an op-ed on caribou published in The New York Times. In the piece, I cautioned that caribou populations in Canada were declining after having vanished from at least 40 percent of their southern range across the country over the last century. Caribou at that time faced significant threats to their future, and there is a heightened sense of urgency three years later. While I thought my characterization of the challenges facing caribou was forceful in 2011, in re-reading my words today they feel understated.

What has changed in this short time? As a member of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada who is responsible for terrestrial mammals, I have led or been involved in the scientific assessments of 11 caribou population groups across Canada – from Newfoundland to the western mountains and north to the Arctic.

In many places where there is good survey information, there is evidence of bad news. Very few of the areas comprising the species distribution show signs of recovery following population declines. As someone who looks forward to witnessing the majestic movements of caribou every year, the collective picture that continues to emerge regarding their long-term survival is both distressing and discouraging.
What is encouraging is that despite what caribou are up against, a growing body of evidence and experience offers more options to provide caribou with more meaningful protection than they currently receive. The question is whether there will be sufficient courage to restrain our galloping human footprint and whether we have the patience to undertake the habitat restoration that is necessary.

If this effort is to succeed, it will take decades. But any hope of progress must begin with a clear awareness of the threats caribou face in our boreal forests and elsewhere across Canada. There are major choices to be made to help ensure that this holiday icon may endure to spark the imaginations of youngsters dreaming of a reindeer-driven sleigh for generations to come.



Caribou tell us about the health of broader landscapes.

Unexpected Gifts: What the Christmas Bird Count taught me about Science, Conservation, and Community

Unexpected Gifts: What the Christmas Bird Count taught me about Science, Conservation, and Community

I stayed in my northern home of Whitehorse, Yukon this past holiday season.
Hilary Cooke