Woodland Caribou, Mountain Caribou, and Barren Ground Caribou

The following information on hunting woodland caribou and other caribou species comes from Chapter 11 of Hunting Our Biggest Game by Clyde Ormond. Hunting Our Biggest Game is also available to purchase in print.

I well remember my first sight of caribou, and those often mis-leading first impressions of a strange species of game.

At the time, I was hunting grizzlies in the Cassiars, and far above timber-line. It was mid-September, and the occasional sharp whistle of a marmot in the rocks around the intermittent glacier-edges, indicated the final workings of these rodents before winter hibernation. It was a good grizzly “sign.” My guide was just behind.

Suddenly, after pussy-footing gingerly across the rippled surface of a small glacier, I spotted game in the glaring white of a similar ice-patch. This was across a small gulley; perhaps a hundred and fifty yards beyond.

As the rifle-scope came up, I made out four gray-brown forms, already gawping at me. My first impressions, after identifying the standing animals, were these: “What small bulls! What stupid animals! Why do they stand full in the center of a glacier, where their presence is so obvious? And what are they doing so high?”

What I saw was, of course, four cows. Their stupidity was only relative, as indeed another of our party discovered that same day. The fact that they stood for a long period in the open snow-patch was only a bit of strategy in the battle of the species for survival. And the fact that they were so high above timber-line was due to a difference in species.

Caribou are the only species of North American deer whose both sexes are antlered. The antlers of the cows are small in proportion to their bodies. The bulls’ antlers are excessive in proportion to body-size, as compared with other antlered game. In size, the caribou rates approximately mid-way between our western mule-deer, and the elk.

Caribou-size varies, however, as among the species and subspecies. There are three main species: Barren Ground Caribou, Rangifer arcticus arcticus; Woodland Caribou, Rangifer caribou caribou, and Mountain Caribou, Rangifer montanus.

Of the three basic species, the Barren Ground Caribou is smallest, with adult animals running to 300 pounds in weight. Bulls of the Mountain Caribou, the largest species, will run to 600 or 700 pounds. A sub-species, the Osborn Caribou, Rangifer arcticus osborni, is also a huge caribou, having the largest antlers in proportion to body-size.

The overall range of the caribou is extensive. Broadly speaking, it includes all of Canada except the southern-most halves of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The range also includes the major part of Alaska, the main islands off the Hudson Bay area, and the southwestern edge of Greenland. The original range of this animal once included parts of the United States, but the few remaining animals today are located in only three states, Idaho, Washington, and Minnesota.

North American Range of the Woodland Caribou, Mountain Caribou, and Barren Ground Caribou

Figure 12. Distribution of Caribou in North America.

As to species, the Barren Ground Caribou ranges from the Mackenzie Basin, to Hudson Bay, to the Arctic coast-line. The Woodland Caribou ranges over the southern and eastern portions of Canada. And the Mountain Caribou, including the sub-species, Rocky Mountain Caribou, are found in British Columbia and Alberta, largely in the Selkirk and Cassiar Ranges.

The movement of caribou steadily northward is comparable to the mass-movement of moose in that the species has moved with its available food supply. The caribou has moved farther north than other species, and can survive extremes of cold which other species cannot. The animals need vast ranges since the low temperatures are not lavish in providing the amount of moss and lichen needed in their diet.

In the competition for food, the smaller imported reindeer has made enormous in-roads into the caribou’s range. Other than the reindeer, the caribou’s greatest single enemy is the wolf. Caribou meet the attacks of these big marauders by banding with others of their kind, then circling to present a ring of antlered animals on the outside, with the fawns in the center.

The caribou’s vision is not comparable to that of sheep and other species which inhabit the high country. His habit of often standing in open snow helps this lack of vision, in that the strategy will give the animals full view of approaching wolves. This would explain also the animal’s occasional calving upon areas of open snow. Within a few hours after birth, the caribou fawn can, of course, get to its feet and move with the herd.

Nature has equipped this animal with the exceptionally-broad hoofs necessary for walking on tundra. The broad, roundish hoofmarks quite resemble those of bison. Often in the high country above timberline, one will find the trails of Mountain Caribou cut into the earth a foot deep or more, as they traverse the windy ridges in their routine movement in search of food.

Once into good caribou country, the skilled hunter does not find it difficult to kill one. However, the hunter who hunts for a trophy is confronted with two basic problems. First, he has to locate the herds. This becomes relatively difficult due to the animal’s habit of wandering. The hunter’s second problem is in sorting out the best trophy from the band, and maneuvering his stalk so that he can approach the prize without causing the entire herd to alarm and spook from the country.

As with other wild animals, the caribou scares more from the scent of man than from his sight. Those four cows I saw first didn’t leave the country until I’d moved slowly in an angling line towards them, and had actually succeeded in taking a picture or two, at less than a hundred yards. The tricky winds of crag-country then gave them my scent, and they trotted off, stubby tails pointing directly behind and straight out.

That same day, another member of our party was hunting for a suitable bull. He was, at the time, on one rim of a rocky basin and glassing the opposing crest.

For a half-hour, he saw and heard nothing. Then suddenly there was a distant tinkling of shale. Turning his glasses that way, he saw a huge, lone bull—evidently with a small band just over the crest in the next basin. The bull had obviously been watching, camouflaged among the rocks. Somehow, the wind had shifted allowing the beast to catch the fellow’s scent. It left and made the basin-rim before he could get off a shot at a long, 300-yard range.

This was in an area of the Cassiars which, according to the outfitter, had never been hunted by white man. Certainly that “stupid” caribou bull had no reason to fear the hunter, other than the instinct common to other species. Yet once having caught man-scent, he left quickly.

Since caribou-hunting is largely open-country hunting having as the prime objective the taking of an outstanding head, the same basic hunting techniques as used in hunting the desert pronghorn antelope can well be applied. First, the game is located. This is best done by a methodical scouring of all available country with a spotting-scope. Such a glass of 25- to 40-power will pick up game and make its identification certain at ranges beyond the capabilities of ordinary binoculars. Caribou are not scary in the same sense that elk are spooky. When the hunter does pick up his game in the glass, he usually sees a feeding or wandering herd. There is ample time to learn if a suitable trophy is with the herd.

The next problem is how to stalk the desired beast without frightening the other animals, and having the band take off.

Broadly speaking, no game animal should be approached directly, once it has spotted the hunter. This applies to great distances, as well as ranges just beyond the reach of a rifle. With any game, a direct approach means only one thing—danger.

Pronghorn antelope are fine examples of this fact. It’s axiomatic in good antelope country that any game the hunter spots at a distance, is equally certain to have spotted him, and long before he makes the discovery. Antelope have vision at least a half-dozen times that of man. The fact that the game does not spook until the hunter sees it, and a basic fact for the hunter to learn, is because man gives no evidence of an intent to harm until he sights the game. Wary game, having to depend upon its special senses, plus its instinct, has a way of knowing this. So long as the hunter gives no hint of his intention to approach or pursue, the game isn’t exceptionally frightened. The instant he does give his intentions away, game divines the fact, and the hunter’s chance is usually gone.

caribou with velvet on antlers

In early season, some of the velvet still remains. On this specimen, it was hanging in long ribbons, but easily stripped off, leaving the antlers fine for mounting. Within the week, the animal itself would have completed the rubbing.

To the novice hunter, stalking wild game in any open country looks to be impossible. He is especially convinced of it, after a few attempts at sneaking-up on game that has spotted him.

Such game, however, can usually be approached. The fundamental technique is this: Once within the vision of game, or once having seen game, the hunter should give no hint that its presence has excited him. He should make no sudden movements, no indication of surprise, no effort to change the pattern of his intentions. Next, instead of any attempt to sneak-up on watching game, he should give the illusion that he isn’t interested in the game or what it does; and continue moving away until he is somehow out of vision.

Often this appears impossible. However in both antelope and caribou country, no terrain is always perfectly flat. At some place, at some distance, there is terrain which is rolling, or varies in height. The basic problem of the hunter is to so maneuver in the terrain that he may eventually come upon the game from the unsuspected direction. Often, with antelope, I have spotted game on some low distant rolling promontory or ridge, while I moved slowly in the basin-bottom. In order eventually to approach to within rifle-range, I have had to walk a half-mile or so, and over some rolling crest, in order to get beyond sight of the animals. Once out of sight, I then doubled back around intervening terrain—always keeping some crest or foliage between—until it was possible to come again to the game, in the opposite direction from which danger had last been seen.

In instances where it is physically impossible to use this hunting strategy, then there is but one wise thing for the hunter to do—wait patiently until the game makes a move of its own accord. Once it moves from an unapproachable area, the hunter can then plan his strategy so as to in some way maneuver in the terrain to his own advantage.

Perhaps the most sporting species of caribou to hunt is the Mountain Caribou. This species is largest, with the big bulls making outstanding trophies. Further, the Mountain Caribou may be hunted in conjunction with other desirable game such as moose, grizzly, sheep, and goats. Often, this can be done from the same camp, if the camp is well into the high country. The hunter can hunt the bush-lake country for moose, the open areas at timberline for grizzlies in their quest for marmots before hibernation, and the high windy ridges just under sheep country for caribou.

In other areas, it often is necessary to move a spike-camp up from the base-camp, in order to reach the caribou ranges. Horses are best for this, assuming there are any horses available. Otherwise, the bare necessities of a spike-camp often have to be lugged in on pack-boards. Or dropped from low-flying planes.

Such a situation existed on our 1954 Canadian hunt. From our base-camp in the Cassiars, it was a two-day’s trek up into caribou range, necessitating a spike-camp. One of our party, however, interested mainly in goats, was flown in to Granite Lake with a pontoon-equipped light plane, and took his caribou bull from the same camp where he killed his goat.

What represents a good caribou trophy, and how is such a beast sorted out, prior to the shot and under conditions of hunter-excitement?

The basic consideration is antler-size. This, coupled to symmetry, palmation, and allied considerations such as animal-size, and coloration of the mane, all combine to make the trophy. A sweeping, basket-like appearance of the antlers is desirable, as are a pair of outstanding brow-points, or “shovels.”

For purposes of comparison, the record Mountain Caribou heads run up to over five feet in length of antler-beam. Anything over fifty inches is considered outstanding for the species.

With caribou, as with any other species of big-game, the best trophies are those which conform to the standard in antler arrangement, or are typical. Lack of symmetry, abnormalities, or indications of freakishness detract from the trophy, regardless of its size.

Familiarity with the species, and the careful studying of many heads through the binoculars or scope, will give the hunter his best conception of a bull’s antlers in relation to his body-size. For the hunter with a limited acquaintance before he must choose-and-shoot, a better way of sizing up the trophy-potential is, as with elk, by a direct comparison to the animal’s height. Such a comparison is more often possible with caribou than with other species, since these animals are more often seen and taken in open country.

An adult Mountain Caribou will stand nearly 60 inches high at the shoulders. If his antler-length approximates his height, he is surely in the exceptional-trophy class. Lesser heads may be judged by a similar ratio.

Binoculars are necessary equipment for hunting caribou. Even where a spotting-scope is set up for locating and temporarily sizing up game at great distances, the small glasses are needed. They are carried by the hunter both for subsequent spotting of game, and for final close-up appraisal.

Perhaps the biggest objection to carrying binoculars, is the fact that they swing from the hunter’s neck like a bushel of spuds on a rope. The best way to overcome this is to cut a length of light latigo leather, three inches long by one-half-inch wide, and make a slit, or button-hole in each end. This strap is then placed around the center bar of the binoculars, and buttoned down to the shirtfront. With the carry-strap adjusted to the right length, the weight hangs upon the neck, but the leather-length keeps the instrument from swinging.

A good binocular-size is from 6- to 8-power. If the same glasses are to be used for sheep and goats, the 8-power is preferable. Such glasses can be steadied by holding the elbows on the knees, in a sitting position, while scrutinizing distant game.

The rifle for caribou need not be one of the heavy “cannons” most useful in grizzly-hunting, or for certain results on elk in heavy timber shooting. The aggregate hunting-condition is usually different. With caribou, the shot is ordinarily in the full open. It is at either a standing, feeding animal, or at a beast going on a relatively slow trot with the lateral plane of the animal being constant—not bounding up and down like a rabbit or deer. Further, due to the openness of the country, there often is ample opportunity for the shooter to assume a more solid shooting position than the quick off-hand posture so often necessary in woods-hunting.

Caribou cow and calf

Both sexes of caribou are antlered. A cow and calf caribou pose for the author, in typical Mountain Caribou country.

These factors are all conducive to deliberate, precision rifle-shooting; and as the certainty with which the first shot goes into an animal’s vital area increases, so does the necessity for tremendous rifle-power decrease. The best rifle for caribou is a flat-shooting, accurate piece which will retain its bullet-velocity at long ranges. To bring out the full potential, a telescope sight of approximately four-power, and fine optical qualities, is ideal.

The popular .270 Winchester and the stand-by .30-06 cartridges both fill the bill here. My own preference would be the 150-grain load in the .270 and the 180-grain bullet in the .30-06.

Where the hunter is after a combination of game including the larger species, these two calibers represent fine choices for the second, or spare rifle, taken along in conjunction with one of the Big Berthas. Where one hunts exclusively for caribou, the lighter rifle may be chosen. If the hunter is after larger species on the way to and from the caribou areas, then the bigger rifle, such as the .300 H&H Magnum, will do excellently for both.

A word is in order here about the actual field shooting-positions. Most riflemen and hunters are trained using the standard off-hand, sitting, kneeling, and prone shooting positions. They do their home and range practicing, utilizing one of more of these positions, or else the popular bench-rest position—especially in the sighting-in of rifles.

Over the years, and under many hunting conditions, the hunter will eventually make an awesome discovery: These standard shooting positions are fine when they can be assumed; but nine times out of ten, the field conditions surrounding the shot at big-game will prevent the hunter from assuming these postures. The footing is habitually uneven, preventing getting the feet spread and correctly braced. Or the angle for shooting is too steep for a prone shot in the approved form. Or the hunter has to shoot while leaning around a tree, or on his tip-toes to “clear” above intervening brush. Or, he must simply belly-drape over a boulder, as I did on a shot at last fall’s Canadian grizzly.

To practice from one stance, then have to shoot from some awkward variation, usually makes for poor shooting. Further, it confuses the hunter who usually has to get his shot off in something of a hurry. While he squirms to get a more solid accustomed position, or moves to get better footing, the game spooks or moves from sight.

The best way to prevent this occurrence in the hunting-field is to practice in advance of the hunt, simulating the actual position which will be used on the hunt. For shooting caribou and similar game in the open, the most useable field shooting-position is some variation of the sitting position. Game country will, far too often, be much too uneven for prone. More, intervening brush will, from this position, interfere. And in open-country shooting, off-hand simply isn’t solid enough.

From the sitting position, the hunter can ordinarily see over foliage and hold solidly. Such factors as uneven terrain, and steepness of shooting-angle may make the sitting position unorthodox; but even with variations, it will remain the most solid posture to assume under the circumstances.

Good practice for this type of shooting may be done “dry.” All the hunter need do is to take his rifle afield somewhere in the home bailiwick. Periodically, he should stop in his tracks (while wandering about), sit into the best sitting position the terrain will allow, and try to get off a solid “shot” at imaginary game, at any angle, and at any reasonable distance—without moving from where he sits.

Such dry practice works wonders in the preparation for field-shooting at big-game. It should be completed by the periodic firing of live ammunition into safe back-stops, from such positions. A few such “groups” will give the hunter a more accurate idea of his field-shooting, than any number fired from a bench-rest. The fact that the hunter can hold into an inch-group per hundred yards from a bench means little in the game-field. If he can hold into three inches from a rough sitting position in the game-field, he’s doing far better. If his hundred-yard group from such a position measures eight inches, it means that at 300 yards, he’ll barely stay inside the two-foot-square of shoulder area, of a caribou. Such bald facts are good to know.

A good range to sight-in for caribou-hunting, as indeed for most other big-game species, is at 200 yards.

A 150-grain bullet from a .270, sighted for 200 yards, will be 2.5 inches high at 100 yards, on at 200, 11 inches low at 300, and 33 inches lower than point-of-aim at 400 yards.

The 180-grain .30-06 bullet sighted for 200 yards will be 2-plus inches high at 100 yards, on at 200, 9.5 inches low at 300, and 28 inches low at 400 yards.

Other suitable cartridges will be comparable, depending upon velocity and bullet-shape.

The average hunter, sighted-in at this range, cannot hold the mild difference in trajectory up to the 200-yard mark. Beyond, he must estimate the range, then hold over the required amount. Unless the hunter is a skilled rifle-shot, he should not shoot at game beyond the 400-yard mark.

The future of caribou is uncertain. We have decimated our original herds beyond that of many other species. The caribou has been killed for food, hides, and often wantonly slaughtered during his mass migrations, to where some type of protection is necessary if he is to survive in large numbers. This form of protection appears at the present to take three directions: Protection from wolves by controlling these predators, providing large game sanctuaries where large herds can live unmolested, and in some manner restricting the domestic reindeer’s in-roads into the remaining caribou ranges.

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Hunting the Woodland Caribou, Mountain Caribou, and Barren Ground Caribou

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