Climate Change Alone Cannot Explain Boreal Caribou Range Recession in Quebec Since 1850

Chloé Morineau
Yan Boulanger
Philippe Gachon
Sabrina Plante
Martin-Hugues St-Laurent
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The contraction of species range is one of the most significant symptoms of biodiversity loss worldwide. While anthropogenic activities and habitat alteration are major threats for several species, climate change should also be considered. For species at risk, differentiating the effects of human disturbances and climate change on past and current range transformations is an important step towards improved conservation strategies. We paired historical range maps with global atmospheric reanalyses from different sources to assess the potential effects of recent climate change on the observed northward contraction of the range of boreal populations of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) in Quebec (Canada) since 1850. We quantified these effects by highlighting the discrepancies between different southern limits of the caribou's range (used as references) observed in the past and reconstitutions obtained through the hindcasting of the climate conditions within which caribou are currently found. Hindcasted southern limits moved ~105 km north over time under all reanalysis datasets, a trend drastically different from the ~620 km reported for observed southern limits since 1850. The differences in latitudinal shift through time between the observed and hindcasted southern limits of distribution suggest that caribou range recession should have been only 17% of what has been observed since 1850 if recent climate change had been the only disturbance driver. This relatively limited impact of climate reinforces the scientific consensus stating that caribou range recession in Quebec is mainly caused by anthropogenic drivers (i.e. logging, development of the road network, agriculture, urbanization) that have modified the structure and composition of the forest over the past 160 years, paving the way for habitat-mediated apparent competition and overharvesting. Our results also call for a reconsideration of past ranges in models aiming at projecting future distributions, especially for endangered species.