Backcountry Skiing Harms Canada’s Endangered Caribou


Woodland Caribou in Gaspésie National Park, Quebec. Image: Getty Images/Philippe Henry

Gaspésie National Park in Quebec is well known for its beautiful mountain views and diverse wildlife. Skiers and hikers might even spot the iconic woodland caribou, which is featured prominently on Canada’s 25-cent coins. But it turns out that what may seem like harmless encounters with wildlife are actually a catalyst for caribou endangerment.

A recent paper in the magazine Biological conservation studied the response of Atlantic-Gaspé mountain caribou (a threatened population woodland caribou) to Nordic skiers in Gaspésie. This suggests that even relatively subtle human activity, such as skiing, may be contributing to the massive decline of these animals. In fact, this herd of caribou could disappear from the area within two decades if not properly protected, lead author Martin-Hugues St-Laurent told me.

While caribou are threatened across Canada, this specific herd is the only population that exists south of the St. Lawrence River, according to St-Laurent, a professor of animal ecology at the University of Quebec at Rimouski. Over the past 30 years, the population has declined by 63% due to increased predation by coyotes and black bears. St-Laurent estimates that there are only about 70 individuals left.

Caribou in the Gaspé. Image: Chris Johnson

In this study, he and his team used GPS collars to track the movements of Gaspésie caribou over part of their range for 2.5 years. They found that these caribou wandered away from the ski resort for about 42 hours after encountering skiers and only returned when they sensed the humans had left. The problem is that caribou move to lower elevations, where they are more likely to encounter predators.

Read more: The Arctic is getting greener but its caribou are dying

“People say, ‘I was skiing and I saw a caribou, so caribou don’t avoid skiers.’ But that’s not the truth,” St-Laurent said. “We observe the same trend: the skiers are there, the caribou are there, but after a few hours, the caribou leave. When there are no skiers, the caribou come back.

St-Laurent said that over the past 35 years, an “ecological trap” has emerged. There’s an abundance of predators in the valleys, like coyotes and black bears, he said, and that’s forced the caribou to stay on top of the mountains, where they’ll find skiers.

“Responding to skiers, the animals go to lower elevations, where the likelihood of encountering coyotes is higher than on the peaks,” St-Laurent said.

St-Laurent indicated that the head office of the Parc national de la Gaspésie plans to restrict access for hikers and skiers when caribou are on the territory. The park’s governing body, the Societe des Etablissements de Plein Air du Quebec, has a caribou conservation strategy, which includes moderating access to certain mountains.

“The additional pressure that skiers put on caribou is [not negligible]said Saint Laurent. “If we lose one or two females each year, in 20 years there is [will be] more caribou there.

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