Antlers of the East: Tracking the Decline of the Atlantic Caribou

It was the 18th of August when I gained the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, an alpine peak of shattered stone and meager vegetation some 1,270 metres above Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Several stones were organized into mounds marking the trail all visitors were obliged to follow, and just beyond them, lounging in no-man’s-land with a mountainous backdrop, were the very last of the Atlantic caribou. Here was the end of a very long pilgrimage, for me, but more so for them.

At one time this population of iconic caribou held the Maritime provinces in their entirety, as well as the wilderness of southeastern Quebec. Their tenure here can be dated back to the recession of the glaciers, even on Prince Edward Island which then possessed a land bridge, hosting its caribou in forests of old-growth beech. Many dozens of Nova Scotia’s landmarks are still named for their historic herds, such as Caribou Island, Caribou Bog, Caribou Road and Caribou Harbour. The presence of this species in New Brunswick hasn’t even passed beyond living memory.

These Atlantic caribou, while not a proper subspecies, are nevertheless different from other woodland populations, adapting to Eastern Canada’s now defunct Acadian forests with generally smaller antlers, and trading the famously long migrations of their Canadian counterparts for a simple seasonal hike, from winter lowlands to summer highlands. In short, these caribou are unique, considered one of our country’s twelve irreplaceable populations by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), a reality made especially sad by their thorough extirpation over the last four centuries.

Woodland caribou
Woodland caribou shown at the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, tallest among the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park, Quebec.
Zack Metcalfe photo

The Retreat North

Andrew Hebda is curator of zoology with Nova Scotia’s Museum of Natural History and is a man of many references. For every question concerning his province’s absent caribou he left his chair mumbling names and dates, returning with well aged volumes and throwing open their loose pages. Unfortunately, they couldn’t tell us much.

Andrew summarized our limited understanding of these caribou in saying, “they were here, and now they’re not.”

“Everybody back then seems to have spent all their time putting roofs over their heads and food in their mouths. There’s very little information pre twentieth century on caribou distribution, habitat use or anything like that.”

The factors which expelled them, however, are clear enough. The thorough removal of old forest habitat for the sake of agriculture and lumber left them without safe haven, and given the province’s narrowness, their seasonal destinations were easily predicted by hunters of every description, some in search of food, others a trophy. By the 1840s-1850s, said Hebda, the decline in Nova Scotian caribou was well underway.

The final blow to these provincial caribou, and indeed the Atlantic population at large, was the influx of White-tailed deer made possible by a gradually warming climate and the shift to younger forest types encouraged by European settlement. Direct competition for food and habitat aside, these invading deer carried with them the brainworm Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, to which they themselves are immune. When passed onto other members of the deer family, however, such as moose and caribou, this brainworm becomes lethal.

The effective extirpation of Nova Scotia’s caribou is dated to 1905 on the mainland and 1912 on Cape Breton Island, although sightings continued until 1921. Put simply, the province was no longer hospitable, its forests immature, its predators armed with rifles and its competition carrying the plague. This state of affairs was exemplified by two separate attempts at reintroduction, in 1939 at the Liscomb Game Sanctuary, mainland Nova Scotia, and among the Cape Breton Highlands in the late 1960s. Neither attempt succeeded.

All that remains of these Scotian caribou are the bones and antlers of Hebda’s archives, a network of frigid rooms kept so by thunderous compressors. Some remains – from metacarpals to mounted pelts – came with clue as to their origin, but as Hebda explained, most were just dropped off over the decades. Several, which he retrieved from high shelves, still bear screw holes from their time on livingroom walls.

Nova Scotia serves as a case study for the population’s retreat at large, because by 1927 these same events played out again in New Brunswick, and much earlier on PEI, the last written record of its resident caribou coming from 1765.

Andrew Hebda
Andrew Hebda is the curator of zoology with Nova Scotia’s Museum of Natural History, Halifax.
Zack Metcalfe photo

The Fortress of Gaspésie

With the loss of the Maritimes these Atlantic caribou held only Quebec south of the St Lawrence River, but their retreat continued, from Quebec City in 1929 to the valleys of the Gaspé Peninsula by the 1950s. Today they have but one stronghold in all of Eastern Canada – the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park – and even here their hold is faltering.

I’ve visited several of the Maritime locales known to have supported Atlantic caribou in the past, such as the red dunes and grasslands of PEI National Park and the bulging granite shores of Duncan’s Cove, Nova Scotia, orated perpetually by the thunderclap of ocean waves, but none could compare to these mountains and their ecosystems.

Leading up to the park you’re presented with the Rivière Sainte-Anne, the most sublime waterway I’ve ever encountered, salmon the length of my arm visible beneath its calmer pools. Then the mountains rise on either side of the road, immediately impressive and later of unreal heights, the green and burgundy of their forested flanks giving way to smooth brown peaks among the tallest. The first wild moose ever to cross my path did so within ten minutes of entering the park, a pair of them cutting across its sole highway.

The demise of its old growth, the historic enthusiasm for fishing and hunting, and the aforementioned brainworm robbed the Maritime provinces of these natural splendours a long time ago, but here it all endures as an enlightening glimpse into the past. These caribou chose a fine place for their last stand against extinction.

The park itself was established in 1937, and according to its current director, Pascal Lévesque, there were four reasons for this: to protect the Rivière Sainte-Anne and its salmon, to prevent the commercial development of its mountains, to house the fleeting Atlantic caribou and to encourage eco-tourism.

Hunting of caribou on the peninsula has been illegal since 1949 and industries such as logging and mining haven’t been permitted within the park since 1977. Visitors can only hike through select caribou territories and even then, only during the day from late June until late September in the case of Mont Jacques-Cartier. These are thorough precautions and they’re joined by others, but, sadly, it hasn’t been enough.

By the 1950s these mountains still harboured some 1,000 Atlantic caribou, but by the 1990s they had declined to a mere 200 individuals. Today there are 90.

Woodland caribou
Woodland caribou shown at the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, tallest among the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park, Quebec.
Zack Metcalfe photo

Stand Against Extinction

Since 2008 the caribou of Gaspésie National Park have been under the thoughtful study of biologist Dr Martin-Hugues St-Laurent with the Université du Québec à Rimouski.

It was he who collected the necessary moneys to launch this endeavour, the most intensive research program for mountain caribou in all of Eastern Canada. With the knowledge gained from careful observation, as well as a telemetry monitoring program, he’s come to appreciate the true nature of our surviving Atlantic caribou, the factors causing their continued decline and, importantly, how they might be saved.

Dr St-Laurent said this population of caribou consists of three separate groups – those holding Mont Logan to the west, Mont Albert in the park’s centre and Mont McGerrigles to the east, this last encompassing Mont Jacques-Cartier. Incredibly, there is still enough genetic diversity among these small groups to allow for their long term survival. So the barriers to recovery are not within, but without.

Much like its Maritime counterparts, the Gaspé Peninsula has hosted decades of intensive logging, trading its mature forest stands for a younger, thinner, less productive landscape better suited for non-native species, such as the baneful coyote. This prolific predator began its invasion of the peninsula 45 years ago, explained Dr St-Laurent, and has crowded more and more tightly around Gaspésie National Park, hand-in-hand with forestry. Mature forest stands within 30km of the park, for example, have been reduced by half since 1989. The Atlantic caribou continue to decline because of this predator’s incursions into the park, preying upon their young.

“So we have this huge contrast between this island of suitable habitat for caribou within the park and a sea of cut blocks beyond,” said Dr St-Laurent, which I can personally corroborated. Visitors don’t need signage to know when they’ve left the park – the sudden shortness of trees speaks volumes.

“We’re facing extirpation,” he said. “If we don’t do anything, we’ll probably lose the Gaspé caribou in 50 years.”

Such was the conclusion of a population viability analysis conducted by Dr St-Laurent and his colleagues, but of course business-as-usual isn’t the only option. An obvious solution is to limit the amount of logging on the peninsula, allowing its forests to mature and exchange coyote habitat for that of the caribou. Unfortunately, the decades necessary for this regrowth would be too long a wait for these struggling caribou.

If the population is to survive, said Dr St-Laurent, reductions in regional cutting must come hand-in-hand with significant increases in predator control; more specifically, the removal of 25 per cent of the peninsula’s coyotes. It’s a substantial undertaking, he freely admits, but the uptake in suitable caribou habitat coupled with decreased predation would tip the balance in favour of this endangered species, allowing not only for their recovery, but their sustainable spread across the peninsula. It’s a plan he brought to the attention of Quebec’s provincial government in the winter of 2017, as well as to Sépaq, the society responsible for the management of this park and others across the province.

Thus far Sépaq has proven more amenable to the idea than the Quebec government, whose previous premier, Philippe Couillard, was quoted as saying, “I will not sacrifice a single job in the forest for caribou.” Dr St-Laurent considers this a false choice, given that much of the peninsula has already been extensively logged, and that the reductions necessary for this population’s survival would come at a relatively small cost. The federal government, on the other hand, could intervene if the province falls short, upholding the Species at Risk Act as they have for other populations in recent years. As yet, however, nothing has come from Dr St-Laurent’s winter recommendations.

Woodland caribou
A male Woodland caribou shown on the slopes of Mont Albert, among the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park, Quebec.
Zack Metcalfe photo

A Mandatory Optimism

When I finally met these caribou atop Mont Jacques-Cartier, there was enough history behind them to leave me awestruck of this otherwise humble creature, even giddy as I fumbled with my camera. In that first encounter there were only five, passing the morning on Gaspésie’s highest peak, but not, I’ll admit, its most spectacular.

Days later I scaled Mont Albert which alternates between wide, well groomed trails and natural, narrow stone staircases dripping with the moisture of the mountain. Even though it was a mere 1,088 metres up, Jacques-Cartier was the easier climb.

Its peak defies expectation, possessing a 20km2 plateau of golden grasslands reminiscent of the Canadian Prairies, except for the summits visible in the background, a whitish hue betraying their distance. A wooden walkway conveyed me through, interrupted by a herd of perhaps two dozen caribou crossing just in front. Soon it moved beyond the reach of my camera and I could not following, standing, as I was, in a protected zone where fidelity to the trail was beyond debate.

Follow this walkway and you’re led to a breathtaking valley birthed from this mountain’s far side, marked by a river and its tumbling descent. Everywhere were tributaries pouring over cliffs and gathering into an impressive waterway as forest again took hold. Near its bank I met my last caribou, a male sporting modest antlers as it grazed on shrubs. It was an elegant and handsome creature, one it would be a privilege to once again support in the Maritimes. It’s exactly this sort of encounter, and this brand of admiration, Dr St-Laurent is counting on to save the population.

In the absence of clear government support, he puts his faith in Canadians and the groundswell they might make possible. Local communities are not blind to the eco-tourism these caribou attract, as well as the intrinsic value of intact natural heritage. And visitors, such as myself, are often overwhelmed by the majesty of Gaspésie National Park. In this way, he hopes for the public support these caribou desperately need. Donating to conservation efforts and seeing the Atlantic caribou in person are contributions as meaningful as any.

“Some forestry industries would like to see me as a caribou lover,” said Dr St-Laurent, “but I’m not. I’m a scientist and for me, we have a chance at success in the recovery of an endangered population which has been pushed into this situation because of human actions, or inactions depending on your perspective. It’s a wish I have, to be able to bring my kids to see these caribou in 20 years.”

I asked if there was cause to be optimistic and was surprised with his swift affirmative.

“If guys like me, working with these caribou, are not optimistic, who will be?”

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine.

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