Porcupine Caribou Herd

Sign the Peel Watershed Statement of Support

Without the caribou the Gwitchin would cease to exist, and without the Gwitchin the caribou would be gone.
Mushkeg Media Inc, Finding Our Talk Series

The Porcupine Caribou Herd is known internationally as one of the largest migratory caribou herds in North America. The herd of currently over 160,000 animals migrates through about 250,000 km2 of northern Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories, between their calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the coastal plains of Alaska, and their winter range in northern Yukon. This is one of the longest migration routes of any land mammal on the planet.

The Porcupine Caribou Herd
Martin Kienzler, Government of Yukon

First Nations in these northern climes rely on caribou. Porcupine Caribou have been the mainstay for people in the region for upwards of 20,000 years and were hunted by ancestors of today's Gwich'in, Northern Tutchone, Han, Inuvialuit and Inupiat peoples. In traditional times, the caribou's migration patterns determined the location of seasonal communities. Although First Nations' lifestyles are now a blend of ancient traditions and modern technologies, the Porcupine Caribou remain a vital part of northern culture and the regional economy.

Much of the Peel watershed falls within the Porcupine Caribou herd's winter range, providing important seasonal habitat. Their diet consists mainly of lichens and the evergreen low-bush cranberry shrub, supplemented by moss, grasses and other small shrubs. Since caribou have to dig holes or 'feeding craters' in the snow to find these plants, they seek undisturbed areas of reduced snow cover, south slopes and windswept mountain ridges to locate winter food. The Peel watershed wilderness provides food in abundance away from the disruptive influences of development.

The main predators of caribou are wolves and humans. Wolf numbers are relatively low and do not have a large effect on caribou populations. Similarly, human hunters take a small percent of the herd each year. In the past twenty years, however, a serious and unexplained decline in numbers prompted the Porcupine Caribou Management Board to implement a harvest management plan and other conservation efforts to redress the loss. These efforts have helped reverse the decline that had cut the herd by nearly a third. Initial results of the 2010/2011 photo census indicate a population of 169,000 animals; figures not seen since the early 1990s. However, pressures on the herd continue to grow and could potentially hinder this revival. Climate change and, in particular, the higher snowfall and predicted greater number of thaw days will result in harsher travelling and feeding conditions for caribou. Warmer weather could lead to more insect harassment in summer.

Porcupine Caribou Herd RangeWhile the importance of the calving grounds within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is well documented, research suggests that wintering grounds may be equally essential to the herd's future. However, the potential impacts of development in the winter habitat are different and less understood.

Within the Peel watershed, exploration and development of the more than 8000 mining claims and proposed oil and gas developments would put pressure on the herd. Activities in the vicinity of wintering grounds would displace the caribou from important habitat, causing them to avoid vital food and water sources. The distribution of Woodland Caribou in Alberta, for example, has experienced a reduction due to the rapid decrease in their available range-land. As a result of oil and gas activities, many populations have been fragmented and recently occupied ranges have disappeared. Noise and disruption can stress the animals and interrupt normal mating behavior. Increased traffic on the Dempster Highway (the primary supply route in the region) and other new access routes could disrupt the caribou's food supply and increase mortality.

Conserving the Peel watershed is critical to the survival of many wide-ranging wildlife species, especially the Porcupine Caribou Herd, so vital to First Nations culture and the soul of the Canadian North. The pristine wild rivers, valleys and mountains of the Peel will become even more important as a sanctuary for wild species as the climate warms. By conserving the Peel, we will help protect one of the finest remaining mountain boreal ecosystems in the world.

Useful links

Yukon Conservation Society
302 Hawkins Street Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 1X6
(867) 668-5678 • ycsed@ycs.yk.ca
CPAWS Yukon Chapter
P.O. Box 31095, 211 Main St., Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 5P7
(867) 393-8080 • info@cpawsyukon.org