It’s amazing how creatures can adapt to living in the harshest of environments. You’d never thought that something as unappetizing and unnourishing as lichen can support tens of thousands of robust and hard-going deer. Yet, here they are, all over the Northern Hemisphere: known as reindeer in Eurasia and as caribou in North America, the Arctic deer is the source of life for many indigenous peoples, and an irresistible attraction for hunters from the developed countries.
Caribou’s numerous adaptations to life in the tundra begin with a beautiful thick coat with what is often considered to be the warmest fur of all animals. The secret of caribou fur is that it partly consists of semi-hollow hairs. The extra air within the hollows of these hairs helps insulation. Other adaptations include living in large herds. When a large herd moves over snow-covered tundra, the animals that move in the front break the snow and make it easier for those in the rear to retrieve the lichen. In addition, caribous in tight moving herds can actually warm each other with their breaths.
Bull Or Cow? The Misleasing Antlers
Normally when you see a herd of deer, and some of them have antlers while others don’t, you assume the former are the bucks, and the latter are the does. With the caribou, it may be precisely the other way round. Both bull and cow caribou carry antlers, with a unique and very individual shape combining a palm and numerous points with well developed eye guards. Bulls’ antlers are bigger and more impressive than cows’, but the bulls carry their antlers only for a short time in the fall, and shed them immediately after the rut. Cows, by contrast, carry their smaller antlers all through the winter, and shed them only after calving. They use antlers mostly to secure the prime calving ground, but it also offers some extra protection against predators, too.
For a hunter it means that in order to harvest a bull with antlers in prime shape, the hunter has to schedule the hunt after the antlers are out of the velvet stage in August, but before the bulls shed them immediately after the rut. Fill-the-freezer kind hunts better take place in other dates: during the rut, caribou bull meat is usually unpalatable. The caribou season typically starts in August and closes in November-December, but the best time to hunt is in September-October. This is usually the best time to visit the boreal landscapes anyway, with mosquitos already gone and winter colds, snows and polar night not yet in.
Types of Caribou
Many varieties of caribou are recognized, including Barren Ground, Quebec Labrador, mountain and woodland, but the differences between them lie mostly in habitat and behavior, not genetics. The most significant grouping is between the tundra and the forest caribou populations.
The tundra populations, such as barren ground and Quebec Labrador caribou, are smaller in body size but live in bigger herds. They inhabit the northmost ranges of caribou and undertake large-scale seasonal migrations. In the fall they travel from northern calving grounds and pastures to wintering range in the boreal forests, and in the spring they move back. The sight of thousands of migrating caribou can rival the famous springbok migrations in Africa.
Hunting the Caribou
First Nations invented many ingenious ways of caribou hunting, especially in the migrational bottlenecks that the great deer herd can’t miss. In a mountain pass, or at a river crossing when they could assault caribou from boats, indigenous people could harvest dozens of animals at once, and secure their winter rations. Where there weren’t such bottlenecks, First Nations sometimes created them by building walls that acted as funnels, directing caribou herds to where the hunters were lying in ambush.
A modern hunter, who has just one caribou tag, has neither use for such methods nor inclination to take part in a slaughter. However, knowledge of mountain passes, convenient river crosses and other migration bottlenecks is still useful for outfitters, who can use the opportunity to ensure a greater selection of trophies for their hunter. In most cases caribou follow the same migration pattern from year to year, but occasionally for no apparent reason they arrive at a different time or take another way. That’s why some caribou outfitters prefer not to schedule hunts in advance, but to call hunters in when the deer arrive.
Then hunters and guides may spend hours and hours glassing the neighborhood, looking for the most attractive trophy among the migrating herds. When a suitable bull is located, the hunters wait until it comes in range or stalk it. Caribou are not very alert, but it may not be easy to approach a large herd with thousands of eyes looking in all directions, ready to flee from any danger. The ambushing method works with non-migrating caribou populations, too. Caribou are always on the move, so as not to exhaust their staple food, lichen, and hunters can predict the motion of the herd, make a detour and get in front of it. The most successful guides combine both methods and switch from ambush to spot-and-stalk and back according to circumstances.
In Greenland many outfitters prefer to cruise along the shoreline in motorboat, scouting for a huntable bull; once such is located, the guide and hunter land ashore and begin the stalk. This method is allowed and practiced in some areas of Alaska as well.
Does Hunting Threaten Caribou?
In the early XX century, with the appearance of magazine rifles for smokeless powder and spread of motorized vehicles, many herds of wild reindeer and caribou across the globe experienced a serious decrease in numbers. After measures to control hunting were adopted, populations quickly recovered. Modern hunting is not a threat to caribou, but other factors are.
This especially concerns the woodland and mountain caribou. They depend on lichen that grows on trees, and suffer greatly from habitat loss due to logging. Logging may actually be beneficial to some ungulates, like deer, elk, and moose. When old trees are cut down, it clears the way for fresh grass and young trees to take their place. This creates an abundant supply of accessible food for almost every herbivore – except the caribou. A tree must be about 50 years old before there’s enough moss on it to feed the caribou, and they can’t replace this food source with anything else.
To make matters worse, fragmented landscape and high densities of prey attract large numbers of predators such as grey wolves and brown bears. The latter are particularly deadly to caribou – a mature brown bear may kill up to 30-40 caribou calves in a spring. This is why the recent ban on grizzly hunting in British Columbia may be the final blow to the southern population of mountain caribou in British Columbia, that is already threatened by habitat fragmentation.
Some populations of tundra caribou are threatened, too. For example, Quebec and Labrador caribou numbers took an inexplicable surge in recent years. This is definitely not related to hunting, and in fact the reasons are a total mystery – the biggest mystery is that while it’s clear that the numbers are dwindling, nobody has seen any undue amount of dead Quebec and Labrador caribou. The decline could be related to a natural cycle that many ungulates are subject to, but to be on the safe side the province of Quebec has closed the Quebec and Labrador caribou hunting.
Where To Go To Hunt The Caribou?
Still, many populations of caribou are thriving, and hunting seasons are open in a number of Canadian provinces including Yukon, British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador, and Greenland (although that’s technically Europe, as Greenland is part of the Commonwealth of Denmark). Hunters can target both barren ground caribou, and mountain caribou in Alaska and Canada. Even Quebec and Labrador caribou, along with woodland caribou, can be legally harvested in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
In Canada, caribou hunting for non-residents doesn’t require lottery draw for a tag; the licenses are typically available over the counter, but through licensed outfitters only. All non-residents must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Alaska requires only non-residents of the USA to hire an outfitter, while residents of other American states can arrange a DYI hunt. However, travelling through Alaskan wilderness requires proper gear and experience, and involves numerous risks from uncertain weather to bear conflicts, so we strongly recommend to hire an outfitter in any case.
Why Isn’t Caribou Hunting More Affordable?
Caribou hunting isn’t cheap. Caribou habitat is found far away from civilization, and the biggest part of the hunt’s price is travel and camping. Don’t forget that outfitters have to fly in everything from tents to guns and ammo. Hunting opportunities in Greenland start under $5,000. You may find caribou hunts in the USA and Canada at as low as $7,500, but most are in the 10K range. One way to save is to combine the hunt with other big-game animals, including black bear, Dall’s sheep, grizzly and moose – combination hunts are usually better bargains than a caribou-only hunt.
But what you get when you book a caribou hunt is much more than the trophy. Indigenous peoples had a 1001 use for caribou, aside from eating its delicious meat and making clothes and tents out of its warm pelts. Modern hunters bring back from caribou hunting a bull’s large and impressive antlers, that are uniquely shaped and combine palms with points, with a prominent eye guard. But perhaps the most valuable outcome is the memories of caribou’s habitat, harsh and beautiful in the same degree. No place on Earth, not even Africa, offers such a full and complete getaway, such a break from all signs of civilization, as the unspoilt wilderness and out-of-this-world landscapes of the tundra and the boreal forest.