I found it on the third day, a grain of honey and cream lost in the glistening savannahs atop Mont Albert, Quebec. Through the lens of my camera I saw a sturdy, healthy coat, a head without antlers but with the unmistakable contours of the woodland caribou, its calm, inquisitive face in the afternoon light, its eyes locked with mine through splendid alpines. She began a long, patient approach, and I fell to my knees, relieved and in suspense.
“Thank God,” I said out loud to no one.
There was a time when Atlantic caribou dominated much of eastern Canada south of the St. Lawrence River, spanning all of the Maritime Provinces and extending as far west as Quebec City. Today, after centuries of unrepentant logging and the radical transformation of their historic habitat, these iconic Canadian creatures are confined to one refuge in the world: the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park in Quebec.
Unlike other woodland caribou, they wear shorter antlers on average in order to move more freely in the forests that have disappeared from their ancestral home and adapt to smaller landscapes with shortened seasonal migrations. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has described this herd as “irreplaceable unit of [Canadian] biodiversity”, a fact made particularly sad by their moving extinction.
They disappeared from Prince Edward Island in 1765, from Nova Scotia in 1921 and from New Brunswick in 1927, driven steadily north and east by the clearing of mature forests and the invasion other species – coyotes and white-tailed deer – better adapted. to the human landscape. From Quebec as recently as 1929, they retreated to the valleys of the Gaspé Peninsula in the 1950s. By this time their population had dropped to 2,000 individuals, declining further to 200 in the 1990s.
When I found my first Atlantic caribou atop Mount Jacques-Cartier in 2017, there were only 90 individuals left, and by the time I encountered the only female atop Mount Albert during the pandemic the summer of 2020, after 60 kilometers and seven search peaks, there may have been 70 Atlantic caribou remained around the world, according to Quebec’s Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks. That estimate has since fallen below 40.
“When you work in conservation ecology, you are always faced with the possibility of having populations of interest [go extinct]said Professor Martin-Hugues St-Laurent of the University of Quebec at Rimouski, who has devoted much research and advocacy to this herd since 2008.
“Yes, a part of me is prepared for [extinction].”
Hunting of these caribou has been illegal since 1949, and neither logging nor mining has been permitted in Parc national de la Gaspésie since 1977, but on the Gaspé Peninsula beyond the park, logging rampant forestry has replaced mature forests with young regrowth and an excess of logging roads. As Martin-Hugues explains, this disturbed landscape is of little use to caribou, but ideal for moose and deer (their main competitors) and for coyotes and black bears (their main predators).
These competing species became so crowded outside the park that they began to spread. Coyotes and bears are now combing the alpine breeding grounds of Atlantic caribou killing calves, preventing this critically endangered population from recruiting new members, just as its older females and males reach the end of their lifespan. of natural life. It’s unbalanced ecology.
Predator controls are already in place throughout the park, tempering the influx of coyotes and bears, and provincial forestry is re-invent for caribou. Even if logging were to cease immediately (which is not the case) and the logging roads were to be completely overplanted, Martin Hugues said that it would take at least 25 years for the forests surrounding the National Park of the Gaspé mature enough to support the caribou and not their competitors. . And preserving this herd for a quarter of a century is no small feat.
To save Atlantic caribou in the Gaspé, says Martin-Hugue, “extreme conservation” may be needed. Newborn calves and their mothers could be moved to outdoor pens during times of the year when they are most vulnerable to predators, outdoor pens that are currently under construction, and new individuals could be introduced into the herd from elsewhere in Canada, diluting the genetic uniqueness of the Gaspésie caribou, but improving the reproductive success of the herd. Such measures and others, he said, are increasingly on his mind.
“[Are these measures] worse than losing the entire population? He asked. “From my point of view, the answer is no.”
The lone caribou that spied me hundreds of meters atop Mount Albert approached until it was less than a dozen paces away, regarding me with eyes both wide and wise as we engaged in unspoken dialogue. After a long moment, she looked wistfully at her mountain home, then went on her way.
I watched her fade into the savannah, moving patiently into an uncertain future, and I knew that without action of the kind that rarely comes from government, I would never see her again. I think of her at this time of year, when I prepare my summer expeditions and see that Gaspésie is not on the list. One day soon, the Chic Choc Mountains may no longer be the refuge of the Atlantic caribou. One day it may just be mountains.