Caribou migrations in a changing Arctic

Aerial view of caribou walking across snowy tundra.
Western Arctic Herd caribou in the Nulato Hills during their northward, spring migration.

NPS/Kyle Joly

Caribou are highly adapted to extreme environmental variability, which has allowed them to endure dramatic, historic changes, including multiple ice ages. However, current climate change is happening 2-3 times faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet and perhaps at an unprecedented rate. The key question is: Can caribou, particularly in the face of significant changes in land use and development in the Arctic, keep up with these changes? Migration is a critical behavior trait that allows caribou to deal with environmental variability and achieve large population sizes. In an article published in the journal Animal Migrations, a team of experts that spans the Arctic reviewed potential impacts of climate change on caribou and reindeer (the name used for the same species in Eurasia) and identified key factors to preserve these migrations for the health of the species, individual caribou populations, and human residents of the North that rely upon them. Maintaining free passage of caribou to access their seasonal ranges is vital to conserving caribou migrations. Avoiding development in sensitive locations and mitigating the impacts of development on migration will be essential to the conservation of large, migratory caribou populations in the changing Arctic.

Caribou and reindeer migrations in the changing Arctic


Caribou and reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, are the most numerous and socio-ecologically important terrestrial species in the Arctic. Their migrations are directly and indirectly affected by the seasonal nature of the northernmost regions, human development and population size; all of which are impacted by climate change. We review the most critical drivers of Rangifer migration and how a rapidly changing Arctic may affect them. In order to conserve large Rangifer populations, they must be allowed free passage along their migratory routes to reach seasonal ranges. We also provide some pragmatic ideas to help conserve Rangifer migrations into the future.

Joly, K., A. Gunn, S. D. Côté, M. Panzacchi, J. Adamczewski, M. J. Suitor, and E. Gurarie. 2021. Caribou and reindeer migrations in the changing Arctic. Animal Migration 8: 156-167.

Last updated: November 21, 2022