Human disturbance

The impact of human disturbance on caribou is one of the most contested issues in the study of caribou. By human disturbance, we mean things like industrial impacts (such as mining or oil and gas installations), the development of infrastructure such as roads, ports, and pipelines, and the presence of people generally, such as tourists. 

A large scale 2018 study on two barren-ground caribou herds in Northern Quebec and Labrador found that caribou did avoid many types of disturbance. The effect was different for different types of disturbance.  The avoidance stretched as far as 23 km for one herd avoiding a mine site. In the case of power lines, there was usually no apparent avoidance. Roads were found to pose a barrier on some occasions, but on others, were crossed by caribou. The study found that overall, human disturbance was affecting where caribou chose to go, but it could not conclude that this would have a negative effect on the herds.

Other studies have included information from Indigenous knowledge sources that also suggest that human disturbance, particularly industrial disturbance, is responsible for caribou avoiding certain areas. A report prepared for the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board in 2015 concluded, “ The impact of development on caribou is usually not due to single roads, mines, cut-blocks or seismic lines; rather, it is the cumulative effect of many habitat alterations including disturbances over time that affects caribou numbers and distribution.”

Related news

Decades-long plan to protect caribou in Nunavut nearing completion

An online article and associated radio broadcast about the near-completion on the Nunavut Land Use Plan, and its implications for caribou conservation.
13 October 2021 | CBC radio

Yukon at a crossroads with Fortymile caribou herd

This longer news story talks about the past and future of the Fortymile herd, shared between Yukon and Alaska. If raises questions about land use, and also about what constitutes an appropriate or optimal size for a caribou herd.
7 October 2021 | The Narwhal

Caribou are vanishing at an alarming rate. Is it too late to save them?

A magazine-length article giving an overview of some of the challenges facing caribou in Canada, and the impacts of caribou decline. It includes both barren-ground and woodland caribou.
7 September 2021 | Canadian Geographic

Habitat restoration may be alternative to wolf cull, says study

A news story about research into the effects of seismic lines lines and roads on wolves' access to caribou. The study obstructed some lines and roads with natural barriers, making them more like the surrounding bush. According to the story, encounters between wolves and caribou dropped dramatically where the access routes has been obstructed. The story also quotes a professor of ecology saying "...this study is just the first baby step in looking at whether an alternate approach like this could have the same results as what you see with wolf control."
17 June 2021 | Cabin Radio (NWT)

How eight idle wells might determine the future of oil and gas in Yukon

A proposal to restart testing oil and gas resources in Eagle Plains in northern Yukon is being considered by a territorial board. The areas of the proposed testing overlaps with the wintering area of the Porcupine caribou herd. The proposed project in is Vuntut Gwich'in territory. The first nation says it is anaylzing the project proposal's likely impact on caribou. 
3 June 2021 | The Narwhal

Biden administration puts Arctic refuge leases on ice as it asks for new environmental reviews

A news story about the ongoing controversial potential development of oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This Alaskan refuge contains the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Oil and gas leases in the refuge were approved in the dying days of the previous US administration. The current administration has suspended the leases pending review that  that may recommend the leases are “reaffirmed, voided, or subject to additional mitigation measures”.
1 June 2021 | Alaska Public Media

What Human Rights Look Like: Border-Crossing Caribou and a Fight for Environmental Justice

This article focuses on the advocacy of Lenny Kohm, a photographer who worked with Gwich'in (a first nation in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska) to create the Last Great Wilderness show that focused on opposition to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge in Alaska contains the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates between Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories.
23 April 2021 | Network in Canadian History & Environment

The delicate art of stabilizing Yukon’s Fortymile caribou herd

A feature-length article on the new management plan for the Fortymile caribou herd in Yukon. The article talks about the role of hunting in managing the herd size, and the comanagement plans for the herd split between the Yukon government and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation.
21 December 2020 | The Narwhal

Community plans to lead caribou conservation in Sahtú region

This news story is about a decision by the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board (Northwest Territories) to approve a community-led approach to managing caribou. The communities of Colville Lake and Délı̨nę have already developed plans. Once the community plans are fully approved, a "total allowable harvest" quota system administered by the Renewable Resources Board will be lifted, although it can be reimposed if the Board thinks it necessary.
18 November 2020 | CKLB Radio

Canada’s environment minister concerned about Alaska seismic project impacts on Indigenous communities and trans-border wildlife

News item about the concerns raised by Canada's Environment Minister regarding planned development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The area is the calving ground for the Porcupine Caribou herd that ranges into Yukon and the NWT. Seismic work in the reserve is planned for this winter, stretching into the time when caribou begin arriving in the area for calving.
11 November 2020 | RCI - eye on the Arctic

Quannah Chasinghorse Is Fighting to Save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A magazine story about the female Indigenous youth activists involved in the struggle over oil and gas exploitation in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area that contains the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. The story explores the motivation of the activists.
23 September 2020 | teen vogue

Gwich’in file lawsuit against Trump administration to save Arctic Refuge

An article about the lawsuit filed by a coalition of Indigenous and environmental organizations to try to counter plans by the US government to open up the Arctic National Widlife Refuge to oil and gas development. The Refuge on Alaska's Arctic coast covers the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates between Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories.
8 September 2020 | Inuvik Drum

'There's nowhere like it': Alaska's wildlife refuge fears death by drilling

A news story about the Trump administration's plan to open up the Arctic National Widlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling for oil and gas by the end of 2020. The refuge currently protects the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. The story notes that lawsuits and lack of demand for oil may dampen the propsoect of development in the area.
21 August 2020 | The Guardian

troubled tundra

A long magazine article on the future of the Arctic National Widlife Refuge in Alaska. The refuge is home to the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates between the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska. The refuge is threatened by a changing climate and by ongoing attempts to open it up for development.
24 June 2020 | earth island journal

Agnico Eagle tries to ease caribou protection measures for Nunavut mine

A news story about a gold-mining company's attempt to loosen restrictions on transporting ore on a haul road when caribou are present. The mining company operates in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, north of the community of Baker Lake. The region is used by the Qamanirjuaq herd, the largest herd found in Nunavut.
8 June 2020 | Nunatsiaq News

Northern Indigenous leaders meet with banks to persuade them not to invest in Arctic energy development

First Nation has long fought repeated attempts at oil exploration that would affect a vital caribou herd, which they say is crucial to their way of life
18 December 2019 | Financial Post

N.W.T. releases plan to protect Bathurst caribou, but some fear it's too late

After years of compromise, discussion and debate, a range plan to protect the dwindling Bathurst caribou herd's lands from overdevelopment was approved by the Northwest Territories government this week.
23 August 2019 | CBC

Porcupine Caribou and ANWR 2018

  Letter from the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee to the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program EIS at the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management opposing proposed development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd  
16 August 2019 | CARC

Canadian taxpayers on hook for $61 million for road to open up mining in Arctic

A 2019 magazine article on potential impacts on caribou from the Gray’s bay road and port project. Potential impacts on the Bathurst, Bluenose-East, and Dolphin and Union herds are mentioned.
15 August 2019 | The Narwhal

Nunavut’s biggest caribou herd still faces downward trend, warns report

A 2019 news story on the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds that talks about the difficulty of tracking hunting numbers especially due to online sales of caribou meat. It is also critical of increased mineral exploration.
10 January 2019 | Nunatsiaq News

Across Canada, caribou are on course for extinction, a prominent expert warns. What happens after that?

While the threats caribou face are complex and vary by region, the common denominator is human activity, primarily through resource development and, increasingly, climate change.
29 October 2018 | Globe and Mail

Related resources

Trophic consequences of terrestrial eutrophication for a threatened ungulate

This academic paper looks at the relationship between increased productivity in forests, woodland caribou, wolves, and other prey species such as moose and deer. The greater productivity of forest floor plants caused by cutting down older trees encourages more moose and deer, which in turn bring more wolves that prey on caribou.
proceedings of the royal society B biological sciences (2021)

Usage: Non-commercial with attribution
Format: web

Human disturbance

Historical Landscape Use of Migratory Caribou: New Insights From Old Antlers

This academic paper uses shed antlers from the Central Arctic Caribou herd in Alaska to trace the herd's historical movements. The analysis shows the herd shifting its range at the same time as oil development was starting to occur in the herd's range.

Usage: Non-commercial with attribution
Format: web

Barren-groundRange managementHuman disturbance

Estimation of trends in zone of influence of mine sites on barren-ground caribou populations in the Northwest Territories, Canada, using new methods

An academic study looking at how much diamond mines in the Northwest Territories influence habitat used by barren-ground caribou. The study showed these effects varied from year to year. the paper says, "The exact mechanisms that cause caribou to avoid mines, roads and oilfields has not been clearly identified. "

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Format: web

Barren-groundBathurstRange managementHuman disturbance

A decision support tool for assessing cumulative effects on an Arctic migratory tundra caribou population

This academic paper uses a "caribou cumulative effects model" to examine what would happen to the Porcupine Caribou herd if oil and gas development took place in the herd's calving grounds. It concludes that the likelihood of a decline in the herd would move from 3% to 19% over the next tend years, depending on the development secenario.
ecology and Society (2021)

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Format: web

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This 11 page document is the agreement by the NWT management authorities responsible for the northern population of mountain caribou (woodland caribou in northern mountain habitat) to add the caribou as "a species of Special Concern" under the NWT Species at Risk Act. The report says that Indigenous knowledge indicates that the population is in decline and that "...northern mountain caribou have the potential to become Threatened if the effects of climate change continue within their habitat and localized threats are not managed effectively."

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Format: web

Managing huntingRange managementClimate changeHuman disturbanceHunting

caribou and sea ice crossings near Gjoa Haven

This is part of a project website ( for community-based research in Inuit Nunangat (areas where Inuit live in Canada). The caribou project looked at caribou's use of ice crossings near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, and how changing sea ice conditions and ship traffic could affect those crossings.

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Format: web

Range managementClimate changeHuman disturbance

Extirpation despite regulation? Environmental assessment and caribou

This is an academic paper, but written in accessible language about the shortcomings of environmental assessment as a tool for caribou conservation. It concentrates mostly on woodland caribou, but the discussion is broadly applicable to any developments in caribou habitat.
Conservation Science and Practice (2020)

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Format: web

Range managementResourcesHuman disturbance

Boreal Caribou Can Coexist with Natural but Not Industrial Disturbances

An academic paper looking at the cumulative impacts of industrial development on woodland caribou in Alberta. The paper concludes that caribou populations are being driven down by the cumulative effects of industrial development, mostly related to oil and gas
the journal of wildlife management (2020)

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Format: web

Range managementHuman disturbance


this 48 page report is part of a multi-year monitoring plan designed to assess the effects on caribou of construction and operation of the Keeyask hydro project. The project is on the Nelson River in Northeast Manitoba. The project area is used by the qamanirjuaq herd, as well as two herds of Eastern migratory caribou in the Hudson Bay region. The report concludes that it is difficult to tell what influence the project has had on caribou crossing affected water bodies, but that it appears construction access roads had minimal impacts on their movements.

Caribou Use of Habitat Near Energy Development in Arctic Alaska

A 2019 academic paper that looked at the responses of a herd in Alaska to oil and gas development. It says there is growing evidence that caribou do not get used to such developments, and continue to avoid them, reducing the range available to the caribou and disturbing their movements.

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Format: web

PorcupineHuman disturbance

Vulnerability analysis of the Porcupine Caribou Herd to potential development of the 1002 lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

A 2019 “vulnerability analysis” on the Porcupine caribou herd (PCH) assessing its vulnerability to oil and gas development in the herd’s calving grounds in Alaska. The analysis found that “...the percent probability of the PCH dropping into Orange and Red Zones (where legislated harvest restrictions are imposed) is increased by 10% -18% (Alt D2-Alt B) compared to baseline conditions.”
Yukon Department of Environment (2019)

Does Dust from Arctic Mines Affect Caribou Forage?

A 2017 paper assessing the impacts of dust from a mining haul road in the NWT on vegetation used by caribou. The paper concluded that dust from the road negatively affected the vegetation within a range of one kilometre.

Format: web

Human disturbance

Technical Report on Cape Bathurst, Bluenose-West and Bluenose-East Caribou Herds

A 90-page 2016 report presenting scientific knowledge and status of the Cape Bathurst, BluenoseWest and Bluenose-East caribou herds and gaps in knowledge.  One of two companion documents to "Taking Care of Caribou: The Cape Bathurst, Bluenose-West and Bluenose-East Caribou Herds Management Plan"
Government of the Northwest Territories (2016)

NWMB Workshop Report: “Protecting Caribou and their Habitat”

This 2015 workshop report from the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board is on finding a balance between resource development and caribou in Nunavut. The report includes detailed information on the seasonal sensitivities for the different barren-ground caribou herds in Nunavut in Appendix A. Many of the files prepared for the workshop above with even more detailed information are available on the website of the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board.  
Nunavut Wildlife Management Board (NWMB) (2015)

Format: pdf

Human disturbance

Engaging Bluenose Caribou Communities

This lengthy 2014 report contain notes from all the community meetings that fed into the management plan for three herds (Bluenose-East and West and Cape Bathurst). It is the result of consultation sessions in 17 communities in the NWT and Nunavut. It contains much Indigneous knowledge about the caribou, but the report cautions that it “...should not be seen as a complete record of the traditional and community knowledge that exists about these caribou.”
Wekʼèezhìi Renewable Resources Board (WRRB) (2014)

FINAL REPORT of the Panel for the Substituted Environmental Impact Review of the Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, Town of Inuvik and GNWT - Proposal to Construct the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway

A long 2013 environmental impact assessment report on the construction of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway. The consideration of impacts on caribou, and board recommendations on dealing with these impacts begins on page 93.
Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (2013)

Working together for Baffin Island Caribou

A brief 2013 workshop report which examines the causes and impacts of the decline of caribou on Baffin Island, and suggests some management measures.
Government of Nunavut (2013)

Frequently Asked Questions: The Porcupine caribou and development in ANWR

An undated recent “frequently asked questions” document from the Yukon Government on the opening up of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd) to industrial development.
Yukon Department of Environment