In the highlands of GaspÃ© National Park, about a two-hour drive from Campbellton, is the only caribou herd living south of the St. Lawrence River.
About fifty in number, this population of woodland caribou is the last vestige of what were once thousands of animals that roamed the GaspÃ©, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Overhunting and other factors wiped out the herd in New Brunswick in the early part of the 20th century.
And, if things don’t change soon, scientist Martin-Hugues St-Laurent believes the last herd will be gone before the middle of this century.
“Many isolated herds are threatened with extinction,” said the professor of biology at the Rimouski campus of the University of Quebec, “It’s a demonstration [that] what we have done is wrong. “
Woodland caribou, also known as boreal caribou, have roamed New Brunswick forests for thousands of years.
But in the late 1800s sport hunting for animals took off. The American hunters were promised the possibility of taking big game such as moose and caribou, so that they could bring home a set of antlers.
The population collapsed quickly and, in 1910, caribou hunting was banned.
At the same time, white-tailed deer were moving to caribou country, thanks to increased logging and the large-scale killing of wolves.
Scientists believe that the deer brought with them a brain parasite that was fatal to the caribou. For the already stressed herd, it was too much to take.
Around 1930, caribou were considered extinct in New Brunswick.
The herds of caribou in the GaspÃ© are somewhat fortunate to be geographically isolated on the peninsula.
But that really only meant a slower decline than their New Brunswick counterparts.
St-Laurent, who grew up in Rimouski, said his family often traveled to the national park to hike and ski, and that he knew caribou from a young age. He continued his travels there as an adult.
âI spent a lot of time in the park as a tourist,â he said, âI realized then there was a problem.â
After doing his first academic work on the effects of logging on small birds and mammals, he decided to turn to the caribou herd, because “working them was almost compulsory.”
The herd hadn’t really been studied.
“There was an empty seat, and I was interested in filling it.”
The caribou of the Atlantic GaspÃ© were declared endangered in 2004
In the 1980s, the herd was estimated at around 220 animals. In 2008, St-Laurent and his students had that number set at around 180. Now it’s 50.
This herd is genetically distinct, mainly because “they have no other choice,” he said.
Their low genetic diversity also raises concerns about their ability to cope with change.
You would think that a herd of animals living in an 800 square kilometer national park, where logging and hunting are not permitted, would do very well.
St-Laurent said it’s what’s going on around the park that threatens the herd.
He said there are cutblocks, forest areas designated for harvesting, all around the caribou national park sanctuary, where extensive logging has taken place for the past 25 years.
Clear-cutting and numerous logging roads have resulted in a large increase in coyote habitat, allowing them to hunt and move easily, and the population has done well.
St-Laurent said coyotes use these same cut blocks and roads to easily get to the park, especially during calving season in the spring.
He said there are some things that could be done in the short term to help the caribou.
These include increased culling of predators in the area, possibly putting mothers and calves in pens during the vulnerable first days of a calf’s life, or bringing in animals from outside to help strengthen the strength of the herd.
The long term solution is more difficult.
âImagine going out fishing and realizing there is a hole in the boat,â said St-Laurent. âWe can try to keep drawing the water, but we really know we have to fill the hole.
“Well, the forestry industry is widening the hole.”
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an advisory committee to the federal Minister of the Environment, reviewed the situation of the caribou in the Atlantic GaspÃ© last fall.
His report identifies a number of threats to the herd, but ranks logging and predation as the most intense strain on the animals.
He is currently working on an action plan to deal with these issues.
Not enough time?
But it is not known how long it could take. The law under which he works gives the committee five years to develop this plan.
No one from Environment Canada was available to comment on the process and timeline prior to the time of publication.
St-Laurent does not think there is the political will to stop logging in the region.
âIt’s the same opposition between making money from forests and taking care of forests,â he said.
“I don’t know if I’m naive, but it has taken a lot of pressure to make changes so far.”
He said scientists, citizens and especially First Nations have been an important voice for the last caribou south of the St. Lawrence River.
But, said St-Laurent, it’s a battle against time and they might be losing.