Wild Files-It’s our Nature
By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
You may know Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen – and you may have even heard of the most famous reindeer of all. But did you know that if Santa had set up his workshop from him in Canada or the US, we’d be singing a very different song?
Reindeer and caribou are the same animal and a member of the deer family, hence the name ‘reindeer’. It’s the term for them in Europe and other parts of the world, while in North America, when wild, we call this creature ‘caribou’. Yet if domesticated, like on a breeding farm, we refer to them as reindeer. Areas in Peace Arch BC and the North West Territories are both known for having domesticated reindeer farms.
Corky the Crimson-nosed caribou
If Santa’s red and white suit were to represent he was Canadian, a famous Christmas carol may have needed some adjusting – but all the features of this majestic creature would remain the same. Adult caribou or reindeer range from 80 cm to 150 centimeters (cm) at the shoulder and are the only member of the deer family where both the males (bulls) and females (cows) grow antlers. These antlers are the heaviest of all deer species. A bull’s antlers can be up to 130 cm in length, while a cow’s antlers are less than half as long, at 51 cm. Pregnant caribou will keep their antlers until after they have given birth in the spring. The purpose of a cow’s antlers is to be used to defend food which is vital during their pregnancy. Mountain caribou can be seen throughout the Columbia Basin. In groups they are referred to as herds and in the wild have a life expectancy of 15 years, while those chosen for Santa’s sleigh live forever.
The speed of flight
It was an easy choice for old St. Nick to use this species to guide his sleigh on Christmas Eve night – they sure do fly! Caribou can reach speeds of up to 80 km/hr. It’s a good thing too, as the average caribou eats about five kilograms (kg) of food per day. Caribou are herbivores and live off ruffage and lichens (primary winter forage) when vegetation is scarce. While caribou prefer their vegetation, they have been known to nibble on discarded antlers and lemmings, when they are in abundance. Known for their unique hooves with four toes on each foot, they act like snowshoes, giving them the ability to distribute their weight and float over wetlands, soft ice, and snow as if it were a cloud in the sky – ideal for gift delivery in all the world’s seasons.
According to State of the Basins website, mountain caribou saw a major decline throughout the Columbia Basin region from the mid-nineties all the way up to 2017. There has been some fluctuation in numbers, like when herds in the Purcell Mountains were relocated to the North Columbia herd in 2019. After that initiative, the federal minister of environment and climate change determined that the mountain caribou population that once thrived throughout our valley, faced imminent threats. The Government of British Columbia has made efforts since to rectify this by limiting public recreation in caribou habitats, constructing maternal pens, transplanting animals, and predator control. Aside from mankind, who love to hunt caribou for their meat and hides, they are also prey for grizzly bears, wolverines and wolves.
Will you be my bou?
Bulls have many mates during caribou mating season, which starts in mid-October. Most cows give birth to a single calf after a 230-day gestation period in late May or June. If you want to inspire a lazy kid, ask them why they can’t be more like a caribou: after only two hours that a calf is born, they are up and running at a speed faster than most Olympic runners. Look out Ben – here comes Blitzen!
Caribou or reindeer don’t only have a special role to fill at the North Pole. They are also very special in Indigenous cultures. They have not only been a good source for food or to make clothing like tufting, they are also considered a spiritual ancestor and gift from the Creator and most importantly, a neighbor. Watch out for Santa’s happy herd this Christmas Eve!