Caribou are facing multiple threats from climate change. Historically the very cold air of the arctic holds little moisture, but warmer temperatures caused by global warming increase the amount of moisture the air can hold, so the region now sees more snow and freezing rain, which cover the ground with a thick, icy crust, making it difficult to reach the lichen they depend on for survival. Climate change is also increasing summer droughts, leading to a higher risk of fire. Since the lichen caribou feed on takes 60+ years to grow, this can have a dramatic affect on their winter food supply. Caribou are also threatened by a phenomena known as trophic mismatch. Plant growth is brought on by warming temperatures. However caribou begin their spring migrations based on the lengthening of days. As temperatures increase plants are blooming earlier. Now when caribou reach their typical spring birthing grounds they are finding plant life past its prime nutritional value and have to extend more energy for foraging. Woodland caribou have been pushed toward extinction by poaching, and by logging and roads, which fragment and damage caribou habitat and bring increasing numbers of predators and motorized vehicles into caribou country. Snowmobiles pose a particular threat to the few remaining mountain caribou given their improved capacity to penetrate remote areas at high speeds, running caribou out of their last remaining habitat south of Canada.
Caribou conservation actions will vary between the four mountain national parks of Jasper, Banff, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier, recognizing the unique circumstances in each park. In Banff National Park, conservation will require the re-introduction of caribou. Research in the park indicates that the translocation of caribou could be used to successfully establish a new herd. Caribou habitat remains intact and plentiful within the historic range, and does not face the pressure of high human use or development.
The most significant cause of decline leading to the extirpation of caribou in Banff National Park is likely the increased numbers of predators in response to an inflated elk population. Monitoring of elk and wolf populations shows both these populations have declined, suggesting that conditions are favourable to support the persistence of introduced caribou. While conditions may be favourable, finding a sufficient number of caribou is the challenge. A wild source herd that is stable enough to support the translocation of animals for this and/or other recovery initiatives has not been found. The alternative is to breed caribou in captivity and release yearlings and/or family groups to the wild. Banff National Park biologists have taken the lead on exploring this option in partnership with other Parks Canada scientists, Universities, and experts in the field. It has been determined that captive rearing would be a feasible option and suitable facilities have been investigated. If implemented, the translocation of these caribou to the wild would be combined with the management of elk populations and on-going monitoring of wolf pack movements to increase the probability of success in bringing caribou back to the wilderness of Banff National Park. In Jasper National Park, caribou conservation actions will aim to reduce the 5 key threats and stem population declines in the southern herd. These recovery actions will require the support of other Parks Canada experts in areas like elk and fire management, and of recreationists and other park users when recovery actions may affect recreational opportunities. Within the southern Jasper population, two herds of caribou are already low in numbers, isolated and declining. To become self-sustaining, these herds will require augmentation with additional caribou. Jasper National Park biologists have also been very involved in the captive rearing research, and feasibility assessments that have been carried out in Banff. Similar to Banff, if implemented, herd augmentations would be combined with the management of elk populations and on-going monitoring of wolf pack movements. Conservation actions for the northern A la Peche herd will require cooperative management with the Alberta provincial government and commercial operators in the area. Because very few of the Columbia South herd make use of Parks Canada lands, conservation actions will be largely guided by provincial and commercial partnerships and/or initiatives. Within Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, actions will focus on protecting important habitat, minimizing direct disturbance of caribou, monitoring and research, and careful fire management. Partnerships with the Province of British Columbia will also be explored.