Conservationists are preparing themselves for the extinction of the Atlantic caribou—one of Canada’s most endangered herds—and are considering extreme measures to halt the decline.
There was a time when the Atlantic caribou dominated much of Eastern Canada south of the St. Lawrence River, spanning the entirety of the Maritime provinces and ranging as far west as Quebec City.
Now, after centuries of unrepentant forestry and the radical transformation of their historic habitat, these iconically Canadian creatures are confined to a single refuge—the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park, Quebec. According to Quebec’s Ministry of Forest, Wildlife, and Parks, there are an estimated 70 Atlantic caribou left in the world.
Unlike other woodland caribou, the Atlantic caribou sport shorter antlers on average to move more freely through forests, and adapt to smaller landscapes with shortened seasonal migrations. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) called this herd an “irreplaceable unit of (Canadian) biodiversity,” a fact made especially sad by their endangered status.
“When working in conservation ecology you’re always facing the possibility of having populations of interest (go extinct),” said Martin-Hugues St-Laurent, a professor at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, who has dedicated considerable research and advocacy to this herd since 2008.
Atlantic caribou disappeared from Prince Edward Island in 1765, from Nova Scotia in 1921, and from New Brunswick in 1927, and as recently as 1929 from Quebec City. They were forced steadily north and east by the clearing of mature forest for lumber and agriculture, and the invasion of other species altogether, namely coyotes and white-tailed deer, better suited to the human landscape. They retreated to the valleys of the Gaspé Peninsula by the 1950s. At that time their population had plummeted to 2,000, down to 200 by the 1990s. When I found my first Atlantic caribou atop Mont Jacques-Cartier in 2017 only 90 remained.
Hunting these caribou has been illegal since 1949, and neither logging nor mining have been permitted in Gaspésie National Park since 1977, but on the Gaspé Peninsula beyond the park, rampant logging has replaced mature forests with young regrowth and an excess of logging roads. According to St-Laurent, this disturbed landscape is of little use to caribou, but is ideal for moose and deer (their primary competitors) and for coyotes and black bears (their primary predators).
These competing species have become so populous outside the park that they’ve begun to spill in. Coyotes and bears are now combing the alpine breeding grounds of the Atlantic caribou and killing calves, preventing this critically endangered population from breeding.
Predator controls are already in place throughout the park, tempering the influx of coyotes and bears, and provincial forestry is being reimagined for the sake of caribou. But even if logging were to end immediately, and logging roads were to be overplanted (measures conservationists have suggested to the provincial government) St-Laurent said it would take at least 25 years for forests surrounding Gaspésie National Park to mature sufficiently to support caribou.
To save the Atlantic caribou of Gaspésie, “extreme conservation” may be necessary, said St-Laurent. Newborn calves and their mothers could be moved into outdoor enclosures for those parts of the year when they’re most vulnerable to predators, and new individuals could be introduced to the herd altogether from elsewhere in Canada, diluting the genetic uniqueness of the Gaspésie caribou, but improving the herd’s reproductive success.
I returned to Gaspésie National Park in the pandemic summer of 2020, searching across 60 kilometres and seven peaks, for any sign of the remaining 70. I spotted her on my third day, in the shimmering savannas atop Mont Albert, Quebec, hundreds of metres away. Through my Tamron SP 150-600mm I saw a robust and healthy coat, a head without antlers but with the unmistakable contours of the Woodland caribou.
This solitary caribou approached until she was within a dozen paces, considering me through eyes both wide and wise. After a long while she looked over her mountainous abode and walked on, forcing an uncertain farewell.
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