Quebec to send threatened woodland caribou to zoo for protection

The Quebec government will transfer the few woodland caribou that remain in its northwestern Val-d’Or region to a safari-park-style zoo, in an effort to prevent the herd from disappearing completely.

Quebec government is giving up on herd, says environmental group

a caribou standing
The program funded by the Nature Legacy program for caribou conservation initiatives in Jasper National Park will pen up to 40 female and five male caribou. (Parks Canada)

The Quebec government is moving the few remaining woodland caribou in its Val-d'Or region to a zoo 400 kilometres away in an effort to save the herd.

Between 6,000 and 9,000 of the threatened animal remain in the province, but the number near Val-d'Or in northwestern Quebec has dwindled to about 15. 

On Friday, Quebec's Forest, Wildlife and Parks Minister Luc Blanchette called the decision "exceptional." He said the goal is to protect and ensure the survival of the herd.

Their new home will be the Saint-Félicien zoo, a 485 hectare complex where large North American mammals wander free. The zoo is located north of Quebec City near Lac Saint-Jean.

The ministry hopes sending the caribou to the zoo would serve to educate the public about their plight.

Fifty caribou are necessarily to ensure the stability of a herd, says the ministry, but the Val-d'Or herd has not had that many since 1983.

The St. Felicien Zoo is a 485 hectare complex where large North American mammals wander free and can be viewed by visitors. (St. Felicien Zoo website)

'There won't be enough zoos'

The announcement comes the day after the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said it would take federal environment minister to court over what is said is a failure to protect the woodland caribou's habitat.

The group's executive director for Quebec, Alain Branchaud, said the provincial government is giving up hope on restoring the Val-d'Or herd in the wild.

The situation the caribou face shows that time is of the essence for all 34,000 that remain in Canada, he said.

"It shows that we need to act rapidly, otherwise they go to a point of no return," he told CBC's Quebec AM.

"If we don't act for other herds, and if we don't protect their habitat, the same thing will happen. There won't be enough zoos," he said.

Alain Branchaud, the executive director of the Canadian Park and Wilderness Society in Quebec and a former federal government scientist, said the province is giving up on the Val-d'Or woodland caribou population. (Alain Branchaud)

The group Action Boréale de l'Abitibi-Témiscamingue is denouncing the move. The group's president Henri Jacob said the animals are used to living in a large territory, and worries about the impact of living in a more confined area.

He also pointed out that many caribou died at the same zoo several years ago.

Guy Bourgeois, the MNA for Abitibi-Est, hopes moving the animals will allow them to flourish in a protected space.

"We can't see this departure as an ending, but as the beginning of a new chapter," he said in a news conference Friday.

With files from Glenn Wannamaker