Flying reindeer, and it's serious: Airlift used for dwindling N.L. herd

Some Northern Peninsula caribou are catching a ride to some remote islands.

12-15 caribou will be moved to Grey Islands

A caribou is spotted in Newfoundland in September. (Submitted by Jason Edwards)

They don't know it yet, but a dozen or so caribou on the Great Northern Peninsula are in for the ride of their lives.

Next spring, there are plans to airlift caribou, one by one, to a pair of tiny islands off northern Newfoundland, where they'll hopefully breathe new life into a once hundreds-strong subpopulation.

The provincial Department of Fisheries and Land Resources is planning to move between 12 and 15 caribou to Grey Islands, which at the closest point are just 10 kilometres off Newfoundland.

"The flight to Grey Islands is a relatively short flight, 10-minute duration," said wildlife biologist Wayne Barney.

"Whether we put the animal inside the aircraft itself and bring it over, or cage it and sling it over, those are the details of the logistics that we'll figure out between now and March."

Long history

Barney said there is a long history of "translocating" caribou from Newfoundland to smaller coastal islands. The animals were first introduced to Grey Islands in the 1960s.

"It was deemed important at the time to have animals that were protected from any catastrophic event that may occur on the island [of Newfoundland]," he said.

"These subpopulations that were kind of isolated from anything that may happen."

Over the past six decades, the Grey Islands population exploded to roughly 600 animals, Barney said, then nearly collapsed.

Caribou are seen on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, between Grand Bruit and Burgeo. (Submitted by Alyssa James)

"A combination of multiple events probably occurred," Barney said. "Overpopulation, coupled with the licence quota and subsequent to that, coyotes reaching the island, probably were all contributing factors to a decline over time."

Barney said a few male caribou were found on the islands a few years ago. He says the population can flourish again if a combination of males and females of different ages are introduced.

Finding good caribou candidates

The goal is to move the caribou in March, so that females will be ready to give birth in their new home when calving season comes along in June.

"They will be Grey Islands babies," Barney said.

As for how he and his colleagues will select the animals to relocate, "there's no interview process," the wildlife biologist said.

This herd of caribou was spotted near St. Shott's. (Submitted by Rita Perchard)

Instead, the animals that are closest to the islands will be chosen by experts in the field. The animals will be tranquilized with a narcotic — the effect of which must be reversed at the journey's end.

So what do the animals think when they wake up in a new place?

"I can't speak to how caribou think," Barney laughed.

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About the Author

Bailey White

CBC News

Bailey White is a journalist based in St. John's.

With files from Newfoundland Morning