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Where the Wild Things Are: the Northwest Territories

Caribou on the tundra

Where the Wild Things Are: the Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories is a polar Serengeti, patrolled by strange beasts and rare birds. Sometimes these critters are elusive and sometimes they block the highway. Here's an insider's guide to 13 of the North's most iconic wildlife species.

muskoxen on the barrengrounds

Muskoxen

Four- to five-feet tall and weighing up to 700 pounds, these sheep-like ungulates are leftovers from the Ice Age. They sport an under layer of extremely warm wool, covered by a shaggy mane of dark-brown hair. They thrive on a diet that includes willows, rushes and crowberries.

Where they live:

The majority of the world’s muskoxen live on Banks Island, in the High Arctic. And they are abundant in Aulavik National Park. The beasts also pop up in many other regions of the Northwest Territories, including on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake and along the central Mackenzie River. A few years back, one even made an appearance at popular Cameron Falls, just outside of Yellowknife. 

A beluga whale peeking out of the ocean

Beluga

The most commonly sighted whale in the Northwest Territories, these ghostly white cetaceans are known for their twittering call, flexible neck and bulbous forehead (used for echolocation). Subsisting on a steady diet of marine fish, they can grow 18 feet long and weigh up to two tonnes.

Where they live:

Beluga are frequently spotted at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, particularly in the Husky Lakes area near Tuktoyaktuk.

A pelican perched on rocks near Fort Smith

White Pelicans

With a wingspan of up to nine feet, a 15-inch-long bill, and a prodigious throat-pouch, this big white bird is one of the most striking inhabitants of the Northern sky. Adults gobble up more than four pounds of fish per day.

Where they live:

The birds nest in great colonies on mid-stream islands at Slave River Rapids, just offshore from Fort Smith, using the frothing current as protection from predators and a hunting ground for succulent fish. 

Two moose on standing in a pond in the NWT

    Moose    

Sometimes topping six feet at the shoulder and weighing more than 1,000 pounds, moose are the kings of the deer family. Male moose typically sport a sprawling set of antlers. In summer they feast on pond weeds and waterlillies; in winter they switch to nibbling trees.

Where they live:

Moose are nearly ubiquitous in the mainland Northwest Territories, but as lonesome wanderers, there’s no telling when or where they might turn up. Good bets are the Liard Highway or up in the Mackenzie Mountains. 

A caribou on the barrenlands alight with fall colour

Barrenground Caribou

Weighing up to 300 pounds and standing more than a metre tall at the shoulder, Barrenground Caribou have traditionally been the most abundant ungulates in the Northwest Territories, and the most coveted human food-source to boot. They have long legs and broad-hooves – ideal for floating over the snow – and primarily graze on lichen.

Where they live:

True to their name, the Barrenlands are the main habitat for these caribou. These caribou also roam through Tuktut Nogait National Park (its name means “baby caribou,” after all). 

Dall's sheep perched on a mountain in the NWT

Dall’s Sheep

These bright-white, nimble mountain sheep typically weigh between 130 and 200 pounds, with both sexes sporting amber-coloured, curling horns. Lichen, mosses and grasses make up their diet.

Where they live:

Dall’s Sheep are true alpinists, living up in the hills, wandering the crags in Nahanni and Nááts'ihch'oh National Park Reserves, as well as along the Canol Trail. 

A ptarmigan perched on a rocky outcrop

Ptarmigans

Our most beloved avian residents, these feather-footed members of the grouse family are one of the few bird species that lives year-round in the Subarctic. With brown plumage in summer and white in winter, they survive through camouflage rather than grace (flying ability: poor) or intellect (don’t drive over them).

Where they live:

Though ptarmigans typically head for hinterlands in summer, they live smack dab in the centre of most Northern communities in the winter. Great fluffy flocks scamper along roadsides or perch in low bushes.

A bison standing on the edge of Highway 1 in the NWT

Bison

Up to six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing close to one tonne, the wood bison of the Northwest Territories are the biggest land animals in North America, dwarfing their lighter-coloured cousins on the Great Plains. They thrive on sedges, grasses and other vegetation.

Where they live:

Wood bison abound in the southern Northwest Territories, grazing along roadsides, where the breeze keeps bugs at bay. They congregate in great numbers in Wood Buffalo National Park, and also on Highway 3 between Fort Providence and Behchoko, and on the Liard Trail. 

Grizzly bear standing in a pond

Grizzlies

With a long snout, a prominent hump and a ruff around their muscular necks, grizzly bears are a familiar predator in the Northwest Territories. Though smaller here than in the south, they can still tip the scales at 450 pounds. They’re omnivores, eating everything from roots to muskoxen.

Where they live:

Grizzly bears are common both in the mountains and the Barrenlands of the Northwest Territories. They also patrol parts of the Dempster Highway, roaming the open alpine country in search of food.

A raven flying about a snowy landscape

Ravens

Big, thick-billed and inky black, ravens are a haunting fixture of the Northern landscape. Much larger than their cousins the crows, they’re famously intelligent and creative, often working in pairs or teams to scavenge food and stay warm through  the long Arctic winter.

Where they live:

Pretty much wherever you find people! Ravens abound in all of our communities. Northerners have a love/hate relationship with these croaking mischief-makers. If a raven taunts your dog, flies off with your golf ball, or nabs your sandwich, consider yourself in good company.

A polar bear walks through a snowy landscape

Polar bear

The great white lord of the Arctic, polar bears are right at home in the Northwest Territories. They are solitary wanderers, weighing 1,000 pounds or more and standing 10 feet tall. Seals are the staple of their diet.

Where they live:

Polar bears are found all along the Arctic coast and throughout the High Arctic islands. The closest communities to NWT polar bear habitat are Ulukhaktok or Sachs Harbour

A whooping crane seen in Wood Buffalo National Park Reserve

    Whooping Cranes    

Named for its bellowing call, this is the tallest bird in North America, and one of the rarest. After flirting with extinction over the past century, the world’s wild Whooping Crane population has now recovered to about 440 members. Standing five feet tall, they wade in shallow waters, catching such prey as fish, frogs and aquatic insects.

Where they live:

Because they’re so few in number, whooping crane sightings are rare. Flocking north each spring, they typically nest deep in Wood Buffalo National Park, far from the nearest road – and from prying eyes. In recent years, however, a pair was confirmed to be nesting in the easy-to-access Salt Plains, just outside of Fort Smith. 

A reindeer herd moves through a snowy landscape in the Arctic

Reindeer

A domesticated version of caribou, reindeer share their wild cousins’ lanky proportions and splayed, snowshoe-like hooves. They’re typically white, tan and brown, and both sexes have antlers.

Where they live:

Canada’s largest reindeer herd, 3,000 animals strong, roams the tundra of the Mackenzie Delta. In the spring, they move to their calving grounds on the coast, passing by the Inuvik to Tutoyaktuk highway.

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