General Information on the Caribou and Habitat
The caribou is considered the American reindeer, which is rarely found south of Canada, but which was formerly common as far south as Wyoming, where it was hunted throughout the state. Normally found in the arctic tundra, mountain tundra, and northern forests of North America, Russia, and Scandinavia.
Like most herd animals, the caribou must keep moving to find adequate food. For this reason a good outfitter or guide a must to a hunter as they need to know where this big game is located most of the time. This can make or break a hunting trip or planned guided hunt. Large herds often migrate long distances (up to 400 miles/640 km) between summer and winter ranges. Smaller herds may not migrate at all. In summer (May-September), caribou eat the leaves of willows, sedges, flowering tundra plants, and mushrooms. They switch to lichens (reindeer moss), dried sedges (grass like plants), and small shrubs (like blueberry) in September.
Caribou have large, concave hoofs that spread widely to support this big game animal in snow and soft tundra. The feet also function as paddles when caribou swim. Caribou are the only member of the deer family (Cervidae) in which both sexes grows antlers. Antlers of adult bulls are large and massive; those of adult cows are much shorter and are usually more slender and irregular. In late fall, caribou are clove-brown with a white neck, rump, and feet and often have a white flank stripe. The hair of newborn calves is generally reddish-brown. Newborn calves weigh an average of 13 pounds (6 kg) and grow very quickly. They may double their weight in 10-15 days. Weights of adult bulls average 350-400 pounds (159-182 kg). However, weights of 700 pounds (318 kg) have been recorded. Mature females average 175-225 pounds (80-120 kg). Caribou in northern and southwestern Alaska are generally smaller than caribou in the Interior and in southern parts of the state.
Reindeer or Old World Caribou: The “reindeer”, or “Old World Caribou”, R. tarandus, ranges from Kamchatka in eastern Siberia westward across northern Asia and northern Europe to the Scandinavian Peninsula. There are several geographical varieties. The original stock of the Old World caribou is probably extinct. The animals now running wild in northern Russia and Siberia have probably at some time or another been crossed with domestic animals. Hunting trips and guided hunts for this big game animal may be worth it just for the unique surrounds you will be in. Finding a good hunting outfitter or guide to plan your next trip may be a little worrisome.
It is not known exactly when the reindeer / caribou were first domesticated but it seems to have occurred at a comparatively late date. The earliest known reference is a Chinese source dated 499 A.D. the Lapps and other Scandinavian peoples for centuries have been dependent on their domestic reindeer herds for a livelihood. The reindeer / caribou provides meat, cheese, clothing, shoes, tents, containers for food and liquids, bedding – in fact, all the necessities of life. The mild of the reindeer is four times richer in butterfat than cow’s mild. Survival handbooks may also mention this and hunting guides and outfitters should already know how best to say alive if the worst happens and you are stranded from the nearest road or phone.
The Lapps do not drive their animals but follow the herds. One reindeer / caribou can pull a load of 450 pounds and travel forty miles in one day, and it is not unusual for ten animals to be harnessed in single file to one sled. As a pack animal, an individual reindeer can carry 90 pounds and pull a sled containing two men, and maintain a speed of up to eighteen mile per hour. Some caribou hunting guides and outfitters will also use these same animals on hunts, although 4-wheelers are more popular on a trip.
On some cave walls in Europe, such as the cave of La Marie in Dordogne, France, there are exquisite pictures of reindeer / caribou, as well as of wild horses, elephants, and bison, which were engraved by artists thousands of years ago. These artists of the late Old Stone Age are sometimes called the “Reindeer Men”. They left their picture writings, carved with sharp flint instruments, not only on cave walls but on fragments of bone and ivory, and colored them with pigments of black, red, brown, yellow, and white. Whether they herded the reindeer as domestic animals or hunted this big game in the wild remains uncertain. It is certain, however that they were dependent on the vast herds of reindeer / caribou for food. Hunting trips are exciting, but sometimes a planned trip to one of these caves to see the ancient drawings is just as fun. Ask your local hunting guide or outfitter to see if they know of anything like this in their area.