- NWT status: Threatened under the NWT Species at Risk Act (2014)
- Canadian status: Endangered under the Federal Species at Risk Act (2011). The committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), downgraded the level of threat to Peary Caribou in 2015 from endangered to threatened.
- Range: 1.9 million km2
- Herd size: 13,000
The listing agreement by the NWT Conference of Management Authorities noted assessment evidence that both the population size and nature of the decline of Peary caribou meant that they could disappear from the territory within the lifetime of a child.
The committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), downgraded the level of threat to Peary Caribou in 2015 from endangered to threatened. A national recovery strategy is now being developed.
These are the smallest and northernmost of the caribou in Canada. They live on several of the Arctic islands in Canada, in both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and some spend at least part of their time on the mainland, especially the Boothia Peninsula in Nunavut. The range is estimated at 1.9 million square kilometres. That’s bigger than all but 15 of the world’s countries. They are thought to have once lived in northwest Greenland too, and may sometimes cross over from Ellesmere Island. They may be found on any of the Arctic Islands and sometimes on the mainland too. There are reports of them having been seen as far west as Old Crow, Yukon. They are typically seen in small groups of about ten animals.
They are lighter coloured than other caribou that live around them, turning from grey to white in winter. They have shorter muzzles and shorter legs than other caribou. On the islands where they live, there are no trees. They eat grasses, shrub willow, and other low-growing vegetation. Unlike other caribou, they don’t eat much lichen, because it does not grow much where they live. Food can be hard to find in their home range, and that difficulty can be increased by rain or sudden thaws that then freeze into layers of ice, making it more difficult for the caribou to reach the food beneath. Those ice layers can reportedly reach two inches of thickness.
The adult population was estimated at slightly over 13,000 animals in 2015, but the entire range has never been surveyed in a single season, and some areas have not been surveyed for many years, so the population estimate has a low level of certainty. The population has dropped as low as an estimated 5,400 in 1996. At the time, there were serious proposals to rescue a breeding stock of the caribou that could be established as a captive herd in case they died out in the wild. Numbers of caribou appear to be either increasing, declining or stable depending on where they are.
Sometimes caribou cross the sea ice from one island to another, and some appear to migrate to the mainland in winter. The migrations allow them to expand their range, and mix more genetically. There are concerns that climate change and increased icebreaker traffic in the area may either prevent the caribou from making the crossings, or that they might die attempting to cross.
Peary caribou were listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act in February 2011. In 2012, the NWT Species at Risk Committee designated Peary caribou as Threatened in the Northwest Territories and in 2014 Peary caribou were listed as Threatened in the NWT under the territorial Species at Risk (NWT) Act. In 2015, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed Peary caribou as Threatened. A national recovery strategy is now being developed.
Peary caribou are hunted by local people, but they have imposed low quotas to help protect the populations. In some parts of the caribou’s range such as Axel Heiberg Island they are not hunted at all, as no communities are close enough to make the effort worthwhile. The Government of Nunavut proposed a management plan (see under related resources below) splitting Peary Caribou in Nunavut into ten management units and imposing total allowable harvests. Despite years of consultations with affected communities, there is no consensus on the management plan. The Peary caribou are split into four management units by the Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), based on genetic variations, and on where the caribou tend to travel. The four units are named after the islands/mainland features where the caribou live: Banks-Victoria; western Queen Elizabeth; eastern Queen Elizabeth; and Prince of Wales-Somerset-Boothia. The communities of Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, and Ulukhaktok (NWT) and Grise Fiord, Resolute Bay, Cambridge Bay, Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak (NU) are within the Peary caribou range.
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