The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Caribou

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CARIBOU, kă-ri-boo', the name of two or more species of reindeer inhabiting Canada, which are of great importance as a source of food and clothing to the natives of Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, and also are of much interest to sportsmen. The caribou is so completely a reindeer (q.v.) that there seems little practical reason for separating it specifically from that of Europe, whence no doubt it came by migration in early Pleistocene time; and still less for the division of this very variable deer into the many species and subspecies that have been described “by those who believe that the infinite variations of nature must be followed by an infinity of names.” It will be convenient, nevertheless, to follow the general practice and recognize two groups — the Arctic or Barren-Grounds caribou (Rangifer arcticus), and the Woodland caribou (Rangifer caribou).

The Arctic caribou is to be found from Greenland to Alaska wherever tundras and a few plains exist north of the limit of tree-growth, and on all the islands of the Polar Sea. This is in summer, when herbage springs up along the coasts and watercourses, and reviving lichens and mosses furnish abundant fare. The does and fawns scatter in little parties by themselves at this season, separated from the widely wandering stags. Their coats are gray or light brown, varying locally, and the summer-coat is acquired in July when the old winter-coat is shed. This new summer hair is long and soft, and is white at the roots, but tinted toward the end. As it grows and thickens the hair becomes brittle, the white base lengthens as fast as the brown tips wear or break off, and finally the color of the coat disappears and it is virtually white all over the body. Thus is acquired the white winter-coat characteristic of this species. As autumn approaches these caribou gather toward the south from the outlying coasts and islands, until huge herds are brought together and travel south to the northern edges of the Canadian forests, in whose shelter they pass the winter, shedding and renewing their antlers at that season. In the spring they go north as soon as the snow permits.

These semi-annual migrations are the harvest times of the Eskimos and northern Indians, and a successful attack on a helpless herd provides them with a supply of flesh and useful materials that ensures a comfortable winter; but the slaughter has been so inconsiderate that even on the Barren Grounds these herds are now small and scattered as compared with a century ago, and local famines are more and more suffered, or districts have been permanently abandoned by the inhabitants in consequence. Every edible part of the animal, even to the entrails and marrow of the bones, is eaten. From the bones and horns various implements are made, while the hide furnishes the best of clothing and bedding. The Arctic folks are as dependent on their caribou as are the desert-people on the camel.

The Woodland caribou has never been so necessary, although always valuable, to the Indians of central and southeastern Canada, except perhaps in Labrador, because there was plenty of other game. This species is in general of larger size and darker color, and has heavier antlers with more points, than the Arctic species just described. It is variable in all respects; and two or three forms from the Rocky Mountains and westward have been called separate species; but the distinctions are obscure. The largest specimens recorded come from southwestern Alaska. This species avoided the open plains, but in summer once roamed through all the wooded region of Canada south to the Great Lakes and central New England. It is now to be seen in the United States only in northern Maine and along the rough northern border of Minnesota, and in Canada has been so threatened with extinction that it has long been protected by law. This decrease is owing mainly to the acquirement of fire-arms by all the Indians of the interior, and to the extension of settlements far toward the north; but it is largely due, also, to the work of sportsmen. To these men caribou hunting in autumn and early winter yields sport of a high order. This deer, sensitive in sight, hearing and smell, and exceedingly wary, affords an object of stalking-tactics so difficult as to make the getting within rifle range of, and finally obtaining, a “good head,” a feat to be proud of. An easier and more deadly way is to track and overtake a band on snowshoes, but this also requires great skill and endurance, and good shooting. The writings of sportsmen-travelers in all parts of Canada and Alaska abound in narratives of this sport, and describe the habits of this fine deer. Consult Elliot, ‘The Deer Family’ (in ‘Sportsman's Library,’ New York 1502); Ingersoll, ‘Life of Mammals’ (New York 1909); Seton, ‘Northern Mammals’ (New York 1909); Tyrrell, ‘Report Canadian Geological Survey for 1896’ (Ottawa 1897).

Ernest Ingersoll.