Which Caribou? Misnaming Caribou Population Units Leads to Conservation Errors





caribou, subspecies, ecotype, population, subpopulation, designatable unit


In reviewing the genetic, morphological, behavioural, and ecological distinctiveness of caribou throughout Canada, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) (2011) divided “Southern Mountain caribou” (c.f. COSEWIC 2002) into three designatable units (DU) for conservation purposes: Northern Mountain (DU7), Central Mountain (DU8), and Southern Mountain (DU9) populations of woodland caribou. These new designations mean that each is considered a “wildlife species” according to the Species at Risk Act. Recent federal and provincial government reports refer to “Southern Mountain caribou,” conflating Southern Mountain, Central Mountain, and nine of the 45 subpopulations of Northern Mountain caribou into one pseudo-population, with clear conservation consequences. For example, in 2018, a federal decision on an emergency order required the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to ascertain whether there were immediate threats to the survival or recovery of the Southern Mountain population of woodland caribou. By conflating two ecotypes and part of another into “Southern Mountain caribou”—an obsolete, geographical grouping not used since2002—ECCC’s assessment falsely informed the Minister that there were 3,764 “Southern Mountain caribou,” when in fact there were only 1,240 in the Southern Mountain (DU9)mpopulation. Other errors arising from the first distorted the number and trajectories of extant subpopulations. Instead of issuing the emergency order, the Minister entered into protracted negotiations with the province on recovery planning that continue at this writing. The nomenclatural ambiguity can be resolved by 1) using the currently accepted taxonomy naming Osborn’s caribou a valid subspecies, R. t. osborni, instead of Northern Mountain population of woodland caribou, 2) using original English names for Mountain caribou and Rocky Mountain caribou, and 3) basing conservation actions on these distinct phylogenetic units as per COSEWIC (2011, 2014).

Author Biography

Lee E. Harding, Unaffiliated (retired from Environment Canada)

Dr. Harding has a B.Sc. in Wildlife Management (California) and a Ph.D. in Wildlife Toxicology (Japan). He studied caribou in northern Alberta, NWT, Nunavut and Yukon as a consulting bioloogist (5 years), worked for Environment Canada mostly at the management level (21 years) and consulted in wildlfe ecology and toxicology for another 20 years.