Caribou have roamed the peaks and valleys of Jasper National Park for centuries. They rely on the wide-ranging and undisturbed habitat found in these mountains and forests. Caribou eat the lichens that carpet snow-covered slopes during long, cold, Rocky Mountain winters.
These creatures are an indicator species, which means they reveal a lot about the health of the alpine and forest ecosystems where they live. They are also an umbrella species, which means that by protecting caribou, we also protect many other species that have the same habitat needs as caribou.
Caribou that live in Jasper National Park are part of a subset of woodland caribou herds called southern mountain caribou. Many of these herds have been getting smaller over the last several decades.
- The Tonquin herd is estimated to have 45 caribou and the Brazeau herd to have fewer than 15 caribou.
- The Tonquin and Brazeau herds do not have enough female caribou (10 or fewer in each herd) to be able to grow the herds.
- The À La Pêche herd is a partially migratory herd of about 150 animals on Jasper’s northern boundary that is primarily managed and monitored by the Province of Alberta. Some animals in the herd stay in Jasper National Park year-round, some stay in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, and some migrate back and forth.
- A fourth herd, the Maligne, was last observed in 2018 and is considered extirpated (locally extinct).
Where do they live?
Southern mountain caribou herds are found in the mountain regions of western Canada. Unlike the large, migratory herds of barren-ground caribou to the north, southern mountain caribou are usually found in small groups. They move between alpine areas in summer and subalpine forests in winter. Living in old-growth forest and high alpine areas that are hard to access helps them avoid predators.
In Jasper National Park, caribou can be found in the Tonquin Valley, the Brazeau mountain ranges near the Icefields Parkway, and on either side of Jasper National Park’s northern boundary.
Map showing distribution of southern mountain caribou herds and extirpated herds.
Why are caribou in danger?
Parks Canada has identified five past, current, or future threats for caribou in Jasper National Park. Learn more about why caribou herds have declined in the park.
The primary reason for declining herds of caribou within park boundaries in the last century was an imbalance in delicate predator-prey relationships. An overabundance of both elk and wolves created by early park management practices led to caribou increasingly falling prey to a growing wolf population.
Caribou have evolved to survive in the deep snow that drives predators to lower elevations. Trails packed by skiers and snowshoers can lead wolves into these otherwise inaccessible areas.
People can displace caribou from areas that are safe or that have good food sources for them. Caribou in the park can be disturbed by skiers, hikers with dogs, aircraft, or be killed in vehicle collisions on roadways.
Caribou rely on old-growth forests as their primary winter habitat. Mature forests are becoming more vulnerable to insect outbreaks (like mountain pine beetle) and wildfire as a result of climate change and historic fire suppression. Human activities on neighbouring lands can also have cascading effects on predator-prey dynamics within protected areas like national parks.
The loss of any animal in a small population can have serious consequences. Small herds are especially vulnerable to predators, disease, and accidents like avalanches. The Tonquin and Brazeau caribou herds in Jasper have become too small to recover on their own and their future is precarious.
What are we doing to help this species?
Parks Canada has taken steps to reduce threats to caribou and create better conditions for caribou survival and recovery. Elk and wolf populations are now at levels that are no longer a threat to caribou herds. Unfortunately, the Tonquin and Brazeau herds are now so small that they cannot recover on their own.
From November to the end of February, access to occupied caribou ranges is closed to prevent people from creating packed trails that could give wolves access to important winter caribou habitat. In Jasper National Park, critical caribou habitat is protected by law under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
- Dogs are not allowed in caribou habitat
- In spring, speed limits on highways are reduced to 70km/h in areas where caribou may cross the road
- Helicopters, airplanes, and drones must follow guidelines that keep them away from wildlife
Parks Canada has an ongoing caribou monitoring program that collects information about caribou, deer, elk, and wolves in a variety of ways including aerial surveys, remote cameras, radio-collars, and scat DNA analysis.
This information helps us understand the relationships between these animals, how they use habitat in the park, and trends in their populations over time.
Addressing small populations
Parks Canada has looked at several ways to add animals to Jasper’s small herds, including maternity penning, translocation, and conservation breeding. Based on detailed study and assessment, Parks Canada is further exploring the feasibility of a conservation breeding program.
Working with partners and experts, Parks Canada has drafted a preliminary project proposal to rebuild caribou herds in Jasper National Park through a conservation breeding and herd augmentation program. Parks Canada is assessing how suitable this approach is and what it would take to be successful. This includes:
- evaluating scientific evidence from other programs and population modelling
- building support from partners and stakeholders
- determining source and recipient herds
- exploring potential sites for the facility and developing a facility design
- developing animal health protocols and requirements for raising caribou
- developing a plan for consultation
- identifying the costs of a program and resources needed
In Jasper National Park, caribou and their habitat are protected by law under the Canada National Parks Act and Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
- It is illegal to disturb caribou or their habitat.
- Dogs are restricted from areas occupied by caribou, and access to occupied caribou habitat is closed in winter.
- Violators will be charged, be required to appear in court, and could pay fines up to $25,000.
- To report caribou sightings or people bringing dogs into restricted caribou habitat, please observe, record, and report this information to Parks Canada Dispatch at 780-852-6155.
Caribou recovery documents:
In managing species at risk and their critical habitat, Parks Canada abides by the Species at Risk Act (SARA) which requires action plans be prepared for species at risk.Multi-species Action Plan for Jasper National Park of Canada (2017)
Recovery Strategy for the woodland caribou, southern mountain population (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Canada (2014)