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Update on the global status of wild reindeer and caribou 


DSGNews32Update on the global status of wild reindeer and caribou 


Anne Gunn1 and Don Russell2

1CARMA, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, and 2CARMA, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada




Rangifer tarandus (wild reindeer or caribou) is an abundant and widely distributed member of the deer family across the circum-arctic tundra and boreal forests. Rangifer through its sheer numbers has a dominant role in arctic ecology and in the lives of Indigenous people. By 2016, the IUCN Red List classified the global status as Vulnerable based on an overall 40% decline over three generations. At national and regional scales, forest Rangifer are the most likely sub-species to be nationally or regionally recognised as at risk, but recently, migratory tundra Rangifer also have been recognized as at risk. Natural fluctuations accentuated by human activities are driving many declines and on the southern extent of Rangifer distribution, extractive industries have removed mature forests leaving Rangifer susceptible to incidental predation. Despite many declines being well-monitored and studied, recovery is slow or often stalled but recent changes to conservation planning, especially Indigenous initiatives and landscape management raise hopes for renewed and effective conservation.


Key words: Rangifer tarandus, current status, distribution 



Rangifer tarandus (reno salvaje o caribú) es un miembro abundante y ampliamente distribuido de la familia de los ciervos en la tundra circun ártica y los bosques boreales. Rangifer a través de su gran número tiene un papel dominante en la ecología ártica y en la vida de los pueblos indígenas. Para 2016, la Lista Roja de la UICN clasificó el estado global como Vulnerable en función de una disminución general del 40% durante tres generaciones. A escala nacional y regional, los Rangifer de bosque son las subespecies con mayor probabilidad de ser reconocidas a nivel nacional o regional como en riesgo, pero recientemente, los Rangifer de tundra migratoria también han sido reconocidos como en riesgo. Las fluctuaciones naturales acentuadas por las actividades humanas están provocando muchas disminuciones y, en la extensión sur de la distribución de Rangifer, las industrias extractivas han eliminado los bosques maduros, dejando a Rangifer susceptible a la depredación incidental. A pesar de que muchas disminuciones están bien monitoreadas y estudiadas, la recuperación es lenta o, a menudo, se estanca, pero los cambios recientes en la planificación de la conservación, especialmente las iniciativas indígenas y la gestión del paisaje, generan esperanzas de una conservación renovada y efectiva.


Palabras clave: Rangifer tarandus, estado actual, distribución



Rangifer tarandus is the member of the deer family supremely well adapted to the Arctic and sub-arctic continents and islands. The ability to digest the abundant lichens of boreal forests, migrate long distances (Fig, 1), and their social behavior allow continental wild reindeer (caribou in North America) to number in the millions. Rangifer adaptability is evident in the diversity of habitats at the sub-species level: montane Rangifer seasonally migrate between alpine meadows and forest valley bottoms, while other Rangifer remain year-round in boreal forests, others migrate between boreal forest winter ranges and summer on the tundra , and still other Rangifer migrate across sea-ice among Arctic Islands. The tundra Rangifer are known for spectacular migrations as hundreds of thousand individual Rangifer seasonally bring the tundra alive – their abundance gives them a dominant ecological role and has been fundamental to the lives of many Arctic people for thousands of years.


However, despite Rangifer’s ecological diversity and abundance, their conservation status is changing. Our objective for this paper, is to update the status, numbers, and trends for circum-arctic Rangifer which we had previously reported in 2013 (Gunn and Russell 2013). 



Our review relies on three technical information sources. First, the IUCN’s global assessments of trends through its Red List. Second, countries assess their wildlife to determine if and at what level species are facing risks of extinction and those assessments largely follow the IUCN Red List approach. For example, Russia (2020) recently updated Rangifer status at the federal level while regional assessments are available through regional Red Books (I. Mizin pers. comm. 2018). National and regional assessments are based on regular inventories either through aerial counts or extrapolated from annual survival and productivity rates. The conservation unit is individual herds (populations) or geographic areas. Third, the Circum-Arctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment (CARMA 2021) network maintains a multi-source database for 24 herds of migratory tundra Rangifer. The data are available on request and with the approval of individual data holders. Indigenous knowledge is increasingly included at the national levels and, additionally, CARMA works closely with co-management boards to include indigenous understanding of Rangifer trends.  



In 2016, the IUCN Red List assessment reported an overall 40% decline over three generations (about 25 years), in abundance of Rangifer globally, although trends vary regionally and differences in estimate precision and frequency of estimates add to uncertainties in measuring trends (Gunn et al. 2016, Uboni et al. 2016). The IUCN Red List’s assessment as Vulnerable is a change from the previous assessment as Least Concern (Gunn et al. 2016). Since 2016, the overall decline has continued from 2.8 million individuals to 2.43 million individuals in 2021 (CARMA 2021).  


Status assessments at the national scale list as at risk all forest (known as boreal in Canada), and mountain Rangifer (except in Alaska) based on long-term declines and population fragmentation. Canada’s three ecotypes of mountain caribou are categorized from Special Concern to Endangered. Their numbers totalled 43,000-48,000 in 2014 and have declined 27-64% over three generations (COSEWIC 2014a). Norway’s Mountain wild reindeer are fragmented into 23 populations from a former widespread distribution and are under consideration as Vulnerable. They currently number about 30,000 with a relatively stable trend (O. Strand pers. comm. 2021). In Russia, the three sub-species of wild reindeer are classified as Near Threatened to Critically Endangered based on 40% declines since 1990: current numbers total 10,500 in the European part of Russia and trends vary between regions (Russian Red Book 2020). The Alaskan Mountain caribou occur in 23 herds which overall have declined 50% since peak herd sizes in the mid-1990s and currently total 149,000 individuals (CARMA 2021). Canada’s boreal caribou are recognized as Threatened and currently numbered 25,000-30,000 although the difficulties of counting caribou in the boreal forests mean that estimated numbers are incomplete (COSEWIC 2014b).


On the Arctic Islands, trends are long-term but marked by irregular fluctuations in abundance with crashes during exceptionally severe winters followed by recoveries. On the Russian island of Severny, the sub-species R. t. pearsoni is classified as Near Threatened and numbers about 5,000 individuals (I. Mizan pers. comm.). On the Canadian Arctic Islands, Peary caribou were re-classified from Endangered to Threatened in 2015. They totalled 22,000 in 1987, declined to 5400 in 1996, recovered to 13,400 in 2015, but a collapse on Axel Heiberg Island reduced the overall total to 10,900 individuals by 2019 (Mallory et al. 2020, COSEWIC 2015). The recovery is geographically uneven as Peary caribou on the larger more southern island declined slowly over 20 years and then either did not recover or at a low rate (COSEWIC 2015). Hunting had reduced wild reindeer on the Svalbard Archipelago to the point of almost extirpation in the early 1900s, but then under protection from hunting, the wild reindeer recolonized their historic distribution and currently number about 22,000 with stable to increasing trends despite periodic die-offs (Moullec et al. 2019).  


Migratory tundra Rangifer are the most numerous as the three sub-species are about 85% of all Rangifer individuals. In Canada, migratory tundra caribou numbered 730,000 individuals in 2020 but the two ecotypes were assessed in 2016 as Threatened and Endangered based on 40% – 86% declines since peak herd sizes in the 1990s. At the scale of individual herds, the extent of the declines is extreme:  the much-studied George River herd declined 99% from a peak of about 823,000 caribou in 1993 to 5,500 in 2018 followed by a hint of recovery in 2020 (COSEWIC 2017, J. Taillon pers. comm.). From 2000-2020 Russian migratory tundra wild reindeer declined 51% from 1.3 million to 587,000 (Kharzinova et al. 2018; CARMA 2021). On the other hand, in Alaska, the three coastal migratory tundra herds that had declined since peak in herd sizes in the 1990s were by 2017 starting to recover and totalled 330,000 caribou. The herd that has different trends from neighboring herds is the Porcupine herd, which migrates between Alaska and Canada it has doubled in size since 2001 to reach 218,000 caribou in 2017. Changes in survey methods between 2010 and 2019 hamper the ability to describe overall trends in Greenland’s migratory tundra caribou and it is uncertain to what extent the current declines are natural fluctuations (Moshøj et al. 2011) or reflect a changing climate as the ice sheets melt.


Trends in abundance are typically assessed over three generations. This standardization has the disadvantage that it does not consider historic declines which can be gauged from people’s recollections of historic distribution. In Canada, Boreal and Mountain caribou are only using about 40% of their historic annual ranges (COSEWIC 2014). In Russia, over 85% of Rangifer distribution has contracted to the north and west and become fragmented due to habitat loss (Syroechkovski 2000, Vasilchenko et al. 2020). By the early 1900s, forest Reindeer had disappeared from Finland until in 1950s, when a small area was re-colonized from neighbouring Russia (Panchenko et al. 2021). In Norway, the cumulative ranges of mountain Rangifer have contracted to about half the size of the historic range (Panzacchi et al. 2012).  



At the global scale, the historical trend continues with declining abundance and contracting distribution for most Rangifer populations in the seven circum-arctic countries with wild Rangifer. Limitations in measuring the declines stems from variability in the frequency of population estimates and uncertainties with accuracy and precision. Knowledge of the underlying causes of the declines is typically limited as factors interact and change during a decline. 


The forest and mountain sub-species are most at risk as they are Rangifer’s southern global distribution, with the greatest overlap with human settlements and activities. Long-term declines over decades are driven by timber and hydrocarbon extractive industries which remove mature forests and replace them with early succession deciduous trees and shrubs better suited to moose and deer. In turn, moose and deer maintain higher wolf numbers and the combined effects of habitat loss, direct behavioral responses to roads, railways, oil wells, and incidental wolf predation drives the forest and mountain Rangifer into decline (Finnigan et al. 2021, Vasilchenkoa et al. 2020, Nagy-Reis et al. 2021, Panchenko et al. 2021). The increased predation likely requires caribou to make trade-offs in habitat selection to reduce predator exposure but at the cost of foraging in lower quality habitats (Denryter et al. 2018). 


In Russia, the combined effects of mining, roads, railways, and winter tourism have fragmented the remaining ranges of the Siberian Forest reindeer, R. t. valentinae (Vasilchenkoa et al. 2020). Similarly, in western Canada, the Central Mountain caribou (Endangered) are fragmented into remnant small populations. But despite awareness of declining caribou, the amount of industry impacted habitat jumped from 50 to 70% of the winter range over the last 30 years. With so few caribou remaining, at least one herd has stopped migrating to their much-disturbed winter ranges and are resident year-round, despite reduced survival in their summer range (Williams et al. 2021). Although industrial encroachment is typical across large areas of boreal forests, other factors play a role. In Canada’s boreal forests in Labrador and in European Russia, illegal hunting is tipping the Rangifer into declines (Danilov et al., 2020, Schmeltzer et al. 2020).  


While the role of changed habitat is clear for forest and mountain Rangifer, factors other than habitat fragmentation underly the quite different pattern of declines common to migratory tundra Rangifer, and some Arctic Island Rangifer. Their current declines are relatively synchronized as peak abundance was in the 1990s for most herds suggesting the increase, peak and initial declines were natural fluctuations from interactions between predation, weather, and forage. In a strongly seasonal environment, Rangifer, like other Arctic herbivores (e.g.: lemmings; Andreassen et al. 2020), naturally fluctuate in abundance (Zalatan et al. 2006, Bergerud et al. 2008, Bastille-Rousseau et al. 2013, Uboni et al. 2016). The fluctuations are at decadal timescales and somewhat regular although sample sizes limit describing periodicity: the duration of a single cycle is 40 – 70 years for 20 herds of migratory tundra caribou across North America, Greenland, and Alaska while the periodicity is 115–130 years for northern Eurasia (Baskin 2000).  


The current declines, at least for migratory tundra Rangifer and some boreal or mountain Rangifer, are likely the result of natural fluctuations that integrate the numerical responses of predators and parasites, changes in forage quality, and stochastic events. As a decline continues, lags in management (hunting and land use restriction) and the numerical response of predators may accelerate the rate of decline, even to below historical minimums. Avoiding extreme low numbers is essential as it minimizes the impact of stochastic events such as a hot dry summer, severe winter, or an outbreak of disease. Extreme low numbers may trigger Allee effects if the social density is too low to sustain collective behavior such as the return to a gregarious calving ground (Gunn et al. 2012). Low numbers increase the difficulty and length of recovery. For example, the Alaskan Fortymile herd declined from a peak of 260,000 in the 1920s to about 6,000 in the mid-1970s. Low calf survival meant it took about 15 years for the herd to double from the low numbers, despite restricted hunting and wolf control (Gronquist et al. 2005).


The most northerly of the Arctic Island Rangifer are in a third category of declines as they are characteristically irregular, and abrupt population crashes occur during winters with unusually severe foraging conditions followed by natural recovery, aided when the local Indigenous hunters restrict their take. For the Canadian Arctic Islands, the declines associated with severe winters are imposed on a long-term decline or, as in the case of Svalbard, a long-term recovery since historic over-hunting stopped (LeMoullec et al. 2019).  


Whether declines are reversible with conservation and management actions is highly variable. Management actions such as reducing hunting can reverse declines, as for example Svalbard wild reindeer (LeMoullec et al. 2019).  The reasons why some Rangifer are increasing, such as Alaskan coastal tundra herds and two of Greenland’s west coast herds, are less clear. Even when herd size and factors affecting vital rates are monitored, describing the effectiveness of management actions is difficult (Strand et al. 2012).  


The status assessments and Endangered Species Acts are a basis for governments to consult and plan but more is needed for effective conservation (Krause et al. 2021). Fortunately, changes are underway to shift the emphasis from a prescriptive to a cooperative approach among those who share an interest in Rangifer and their habitat. For example, cooperation has supported the linking of protected areas and forest management for the recovery of forest reindeer which seasonally migrate across the Russian-Finnish international border (Panchenko et al. 2021). This international collaboration is part of a global effort to conserve migratory ungulates, including Rangifer, and to learn from each other through sharing data and experiences to map ungulate migrations (Kauffman et al. 2021). 


The importance of migrations and free passage will only increase with a warmer climate as Rangifer can adapt to some level of habitat change if they can freely move across roads and other linear developments. The importance of migrations is that they are key to the abundance of Rangifer and, they depend on collective behavior and memory. Traditional seasonal ranges such as calving grounds have persisted for hundreds of years while the routes of seasonal migrations have persisted thousands of years (Gordon 2005, Miller et al. 2020). If Rangifer abundance is allowed to drop too low, and migration halts, the spatial and cultural memory of seasonal habitats under different environmental conditions is lost (Brakes et al. 2021).


In Norway, management is moving from expert-driven population-based management towards greater stakeholder involvement, and regional land use planning (Kaltenberg et al, 2012). Shifts in management and conservation are needed as the global decline documented through monitoring, research, management, and recovery planning are continuing (Krause et al. 2021). A key shift for conservation is collaboration with Indigenous people who, for thousands of years, depended on Rangifer and increasingly have a statuary role in monitoring and management. 


In Canada, a National Boreal Caribou Knowledge Consortium (2021) is part of the federal action plan for boreal caribou about sharing, generating, and mobilizing boreal caribou knowledge among Indigenous peoples, governments, co-management boards, communities, industry, environmental non-governmental organizations, and academic researchers. Given the fundamental importance of free passage and habitat integrity for Rangifer, a focus on protected areas (Vasilchenko et al. 2020) as for example in Russia, on the Kola Peninsula, the establishment of the Lapland Nature Reserve helped to preserve the Western population of wild reindeer (Semenov-Tyan-Shansky, 1977). Protected areas where Indigenous people are taking the lead is a significant step forward (ICE 2018). In 2021 an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area in Nuhenéné, the traditional territory of the Athabasca Denesułiné is underway to protect important caribou wintering habitat in Canada. 


The longer-term outlook for Rangifer will depend on the changes in climate which are especially significant in the Arctic. Climate and weather influence almost all aspects of Rangifer ecology including predation, parasitism, and forage quality and quantity. Rangifer live in a world buffeted by annual and unpredictable variations in weather, resulting in variations in forage availability (Caughley and Gunn 1993). A warmer climate adds both trends to the variable climate, and a change in the frequency of weather events (Chan et al. 2005) and will bring complex interactions between seasons (Loe et al. 2020). A warmer climate may increase biting fly harassment (Fig.2) as well as plant growth, for example.  It is by no means clear how the positive effects (increased plant growth and a longer-snow-free season) will balance out the risks of, for example, intensified parasitism and periodic ice-restricted forage availability. A warmer climate will vary regionally across the Arctic and this regional variation will play against the already marked regional variation in the degree of human-influenced landscape. In Europe, human influences on the wild reindeer landscape are strong and will require a high degree of collaboration and communication to reach a balance for the wild reindeer to thrive (Linnell et al. 2020).  



A network such as CARMA depends on the support of many people and we thank them for sharing their information. We also thank Aimee Guile, Wek’èezhìı Renewable Resources Board, Northwest Territories, Canada and Danila Panchenko, Institute of Biology of Karelian Research Centre of RAS, Russia for their useful and helpful review.



 We are self-funded.

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Figures and Figure captions


Figure 1. Caribou in March migrating across a frozen lake (Petter Jacobsen, Dedats’eetsaa: Tłıc̨ hǫ Research and Training Institute)

Figure 2. Caribou in July on the barrens aggregated together in response to biting fly harassment (Petter Jacobsen, Dedats’eetsaa: Tłıc̨ hǫ Research and Training Institute)


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