Three of the last seven remaining caribou of the Val-d’Or herd escaped from their enclosure last summer and remained on the loose for several months before being recaptured, an incident hitherto ignored by the ministry. of Forests, Wildlife and Parks (MFFP).
Concerned about the living conditions of woodland caribou in captivity, two separate sources recently reported the events to Radio-Canada.
Asked about the situation, the MFFP confirmed the incident to Radio-Canada.
“On June 14, 2021, at approximately 12:45 p.m., high winds caused by a thunderstorm forced open the enclosure gates, allowing three caribou to escape,” the ministry said in an email. Among the escapees were two adult men and one adult woman.
It was not until November 2, almost five months later, that the three fugitives were finally picked up and brought back to the compound by a ministry team.
Asked about the recovery time of the animals, the MFFP indicated that the experts recommended the ministry to wait until the autumn to carry out its operation, taking into account certain risks linked to the hot weather.
“The capture of caribou must be done under favorable conditions to minimize the risk of injury and ensure the welfare of the animals,” explained the ministry.
The three caribou were eventually captured with a net gun during a helicopter operation involving “experienced shooters”, biologists, technicians and veterinarians.
A well-kept secret
While the animals were away, the MFFP kept quiet about the situation, arguing that announcing it publicly might do more harm than good.
He specifies that the employees of the ministry were able to follow the movements of the caribou thanks to radio tracking collars installed on each animal as part of their placement in the enclosure of Val-d’Or in March 2020.
“The MFFP knew their movements and their locations […] Disclosure of information was only likely to arouse people’s curiosity and create situations that could endanger the caribou,” the ministry said.
However, the department had several subsequent opportunities to speak about the incident.
The latest dates back to last week, during a technical information session offered to journalists on the use of enclosures to protect isolated caribou herds in Charlevoix, Val-d’Or and Gaspésie. At no time during the presentation did the department’s representatives mention the problem of the compound in Val-d’Or.
That said, the event was significant enough to lead to the modification of all caribou enclosures in Quebec.
The MFFP said the procedure for closing and opening the doors has been revised to ensure the enclosure is kept sealed and the doors cannot be opened inadvertently.
The ministry “flees its responsibilities”, according to an expert
According to biologist and woodland caribou specialist Serge Couturier, the escape of the three caribou could have been very costly in the sense that there are only seven caribou left in the isolated Val-d’Or herd.
“These three animals could have encountered predators and died,” he said, adding that he was also concerned that the animals did not mate while on leave.
“This escape shows that the [ministry] shirks its responsibilities as guardian of an endangered species,” he said.
Couturier regrets that the monitoring of the enclosures, while constantly patrolled by an employee on site, is entrusted to what he calls inexperienced “trainees”.
“They’re doing their best, but they don’t have the expertise to handle caring for big animals like caribou,” he said.
Couturier says this situation shows the provincial government lacks commitment and professionalism in its approach to protecting endangered species and their habitats.
The Quebec Independent Commission on Woodland and Mountain Caribou, which is currently holding public hearings in several regions, is in Abitibi-Témiscamingue this week.
There are currently only 5,252 known woodland or mountain caribou in Quebec.
The Val-d’Or herd, as well as those of Charlevoix and Gaspésie — whose enclosures only contain 16 and 35 caribou respectively — are on the verge of extinction.