Conservationists are bracing for the extinction of the Atlantic caribou, one of Canada’s most endangered herds, and are considering extreme measures to stem the decline.
At one time, the Atlantic caribou dominated much of eastern Canada south of the St.Lawrence River, spanning all of the Maritime provinces and extending west to Quebec.
Today, after centuries of unrepentant forestry and the radical transformation of their historic habitat, these iconic creatures of Canada are confined to one refuge: the Chic Choc Mountains of GaspÃ©sie National Park, Quebec. According to the Quebec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks, there are around 70 Atlantic caribou left in the world.
Unlike other woodland caribou, Atlantic caribou on average wear shorter antlers to move more freely through forests and adapt to smaller landscapes with shorter seasonal migrations. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) called this herd “the irreplaceable unit of (Canadian) biodiversity”, a fact made particularly sad by its endangered status.
âWhen we work in conservation ecology, we are always faced with the possibility of having populations of interest (endangered),â said Martin-Hugues St-Laurent, professor at the University of Quebec in Rimouski, which has devoted a lot of research and advocacy to this herd since 2008.
The Atlantic caribou were extirpated from Prince Edward Island in 1765, Nova Scotia in 1921 and New Brunswick in 1927, and as recently as 1929 from Quebec City. They were gradually pushed north and east by the clearing of mature forest for timber and agriculture, and the invasion of other species, namely coyotes and white-tailed deer, better suited to the landscape. human. They retreated to the valleys of the GaspÃ© Peninsula in the 1950s. By that time their population had fallen to 2,000, to 200 in the 1990s. When I found my first Atlantic caribou in the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier in 2017, there were only 90 left.
Hunting these caribou has been illegal since 1949 and neither logging nor mining has been authorized in GaspÃ© National Park since 1977, but on the GaspÃ© Peninsula beyond the park, logging creeping 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 main competitors) and for coyotes and black bears (their main predators).
These competing species became so populated outside the park that they began to spread. Coyotes and bears are now combing the alpine breeding grounds of Atlantic caribou and killing calves, preventing this critically endangered population from reproducing.
Predator controls are already in place throughout the park, tempering the influx of coyotes and bears, and provincial forestry is being redesigned for the benefit of the caribou. But even if logging were to cease immediately and logging roads were to be over-planted (measures conservationists have suggested to the provincial government), St-Laurent said it would take at least 25 years for the forests surrounding the park. national de la GaspÃ©sie mature enough to support the caribou.
To save the Atlantic caribou from the GaspÃ©, “extreme conservation” may be necessary, St-Laurent said. Newborn calves and their mothers could be placed in outdoor pens during times of the year when they are most vulnerable to predators, and new individuals could be introduced to the herd from elsewhere in Canada, diluting thus the genetic uniqueness of the GaspÃ© caribou, but improving the herd’s reproductive success.
I returned to Parc national de la GaspÃ©sie during the pandemic summer of 2020, looking for 60 kilometers and seven peaks, for any sign of the remaining 70. I spotted her on day three, in the shimmering savannahs atop Mount Albert, Quebec, hundreds of yards one way. Thanks to my Tamron SP 150-600mm, I saw a strong and healthy coat, a head without antlers but with the unmistakable contours of a woodland caribou.
This solitary caribou approached until she was less than a dozen paces away, gazing at me with wide and wise eyes. After a long moment, she looked over her mountainous abode and walked away, forcing an uncertain farewell.
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