Species Profile

Peary Caribou High Arctic population

Scientific Name: Rangifer tarandus pearyi
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
Range: Northwest Territories, Nunavut
Last COSEWIC Assessment: May 2004
Last COSEWIC Designation: Non-active
SARA Status: Schedule 2, Endangered - (SARA Schedule 1 provisions do not apply)

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Related Species

Peary Caribou Threatened Endangered

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Image of Peary Caribou

Peary Caribou Photo 1



Peary caribou are almost completely white with small antlers. The antlers of the young males and those of the females are approximately the same size, while the antlers of older bulls are larger. The antlers of bulls begin growing in March and they grow rapidly from May to July. The bulls begin rubbing off the velvet in September, and the antlers are clean by October. Older bulls begin dropping their antlers in November, and by February all the bulls have lost their antlers. The antlers of the cows grow from June to September; the velvet remains on the antlers until late in October. Cows drop their antlers in April or May. Like all caribou, Pearys have a large blunt muzzle, short and broad ears, large feet, and crescent-shaped hooves.


Distribution and Population

Peary caribou occur only in the Canadian Arctic and in coastal northwestern Greenland. They are found on the islands of the Arctic archipelago; rarely on the mainland. There are three populations of Peary caribou in the Arctic: the Banks Island population, the High Arctic population, and the Low Arctic population. Estimates indicate that there are only 10,000 to 15,000 Peary caribou in total in the Arctic Islands; the various populations of Peary caribou have suffered drastic declines. The High Arctic population of Peary caribou is located in the Queen Elizabeth Islands. In 1961 there were an estimated 25,000 individuals in this population; about 14% of these occured in the Bathurst Island Complex (BIC). An aerial survey/search of six of the seven largest islands in the BIC in the summer of 1996 revealed that the caribou had suffered high losses during the severe winters of 1994 and 1995; about 85% of the individuals living in the complex were lost. Wide population swings are relatively common. In the western High Arctic, there were an estimated 1100 caribou at least one year old in 1997. The population of the eastern High Arctic in the same year was unknown, but hunters report local increases.



During the summer, Peary caribou are found in areas where the vegetation is most dense, such as the slopes of river valleys and upland plains. During the winter, they inhabit areas where the snow cover is not as deep, such as beach ridges and rock outcrops. Peary caribou migrate between summer and winter ranges, sometimes moving between islands. (The High Arctic population caribou, located within the Queen Elizabeth Islands complex, readily migrate between islands).



Peary caribou reach sexual maturity in the first year for males and in the second year for females. Calving occurs in late June, the timing and the location of the calving being influenced by the length and the severity of the previous winter. Females can give birth to one calf a year. The gestation period is seven and a half to eight months. The maximum life-span of Peary caribou is approximately 15 years. Caribou obtain the majority of their nutrients from lichens, grasses and shrubs. They prefer forage with high digestibility and high protein levels which consists of lichens and sedges in the winter, and mushrooms (when available), grasses, forbs, willows and sedges in the summer.


The availability of wintertime forage is the main limiting factor for Peary caribou. Deep snow, ground-fast ice, and wind-packed snow can make food difficult to reach; thus snow and ice conditions have a direct influence on mortality, nutrition and productivity. The uncertainty of climate trends for the western High Arctic population is a current cause for concern. Hunting of Peary caribou by Inuit hunters has increased with the advent of modern technology. This has put increased pressure on the herds, such that hunting is considered a serious potential limiting factor. Wolf predation and disturbances by humans may also be contributing to the population declines. Disturbances such as the movement of low level aircraft and ground vehicles and construction of ground installations may hamper movement to better feeding grounds. In the Arctic, the limiting factors are compounded: a series of disturbances, insufficient forage supply, or increased hunting following a severe winter could have drastic effects on the populations of Peary caribou.




PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

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