Boreal Caribou Health Research Program

In northeastern British Columbia, the boreal ecotype of woodland caribou is red-listed due to declines in numbers and distribution. Infectious diseases and other determinants of health are increasingly recognized as factors which may negatively impact caribou populations through direct and indirect effects on survival and reproduction, but no comprehensive caribou health assessments were available for this population.

Boreal caribou herd ranges and core habitats in northeastern British Columbia. From: British Columbia Ministry of the Environment. (2010). Science update for the boreal caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou pop. 14) in British Columbia. Victoria, BC. 54 pp.

Map credit: BC Ministry of the Environment

In 2013, a Boreal Caribou Health Research Program (BCHRP) was created to address knowledge gaps on the health status of boreal caribou in BC. A comprehensive assessment model employing both traditional and emerging diagnostic tools to evaluate herd health was developed and is currently being applied across the 6 boreal caribou ranges. To date, biological samples collected from more than 200 live-captured or dead adult, primarily female caribou have been evaluated for exposure to or infection with selected bacterial, viral, and parasitic diseases. Other indices of health related to chronic physiological stress, immunity, nutrition, and toxicology are also being investigated. Preliminary results have identified potential threats to caribou health and fitness including evidence of probable trace nutrient deficiencies, infection with the protozoan parasite Neospora caninum, and significant hair loss related to infestation with winter ticks (Dermacentor albipictus). The bacterial pathogen Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae was also identified in the tissues of five caribou which died during a period of higher than expected mortality in the spring and summer of 2013. To our knowledge, this is the first record of E. rhusiopathiae in free-ranging caribou from North America.

Ongoing research under this program is focused on improving our understanding of the ecology and overall significance of selected pathogens as well as a broader evaluation of temporal and spatial relationships between larger-scale (landscape level) factors and caribou health, reproduction, and survival. This work will provide a novel and detailed picture of herd level health status and will inform boreal caribou management and conservation initiatives in the region. Strategies to evaluate, monitor, and protect the health of boreal caribou developed as part of the BCHRP will also benefit other woodland caribou conservation initiatives in BC and elsewhere and provide a starting point for similar studies in other ungulate species.

Photo courtesy of Brad & Diane Culling, Diversified Environmental Services Inc. Fort S. John, BC

Photo courtesy of Brad & Diane Culling, Diversified Environmental Services Inc. Fort S. John, BC


Severe hair loss associated with winter tick infestation on the neck, shoulders and body of an adult female boreal caribou. Photo courtesy of Brad and Diane Culling, Diversified Environmental Services Inc. Fort St. John, BC

The BCHRP was initiated and is led by the BC Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. Collaborating partners include CWHC Alberta, University of Calgary, and the Government of the Northwest Territories, along with staff and private organizations.

Submitted by Bryan Macbeth, CWHC – Alberta

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