Last Lake Superior caribou herd could vanish thanks to hungry wolves

Alarms are being raised in northern Ontario about one of the last remaining caribou herds in the province. Concerned citizens say the herd on a remote island in Lake Superior is close to being wiped out by hungry wolves.

Ministry of Natural Resources says it is monitoring the situation

Caribou Island, in remote Lake Superior, is home to six caribou that were relocated from Michipicoten Island. The once plentiful caribou herd there was decimated by wolves that came in on an ice bridge in 2014. (Christian Schroeder)

Christian Schroeder says seeing a caribou at his cottage on Michipicoten Island was an everyday thing a few years ago.

"You couldn't pass a day without seeing several dozen animals," says Schroeder, who's had a place on the remote island in Lake Superior since 2013.

Some estimates put the herd, the southernmost remaining not just in Ontario but possibly in the entire world, at over 600 caribou.

But recent winters have been colder than normal, the lake froze and wolves have come to the island.

Schroeder says now it's rare to see a caribou on Michipicoten Island and there are fears they could vanish altogether. 

"It's critical. There are varying opinions and some of the opinions I have heard put the disappearance of caribou from Michipicoten Island as occurring this winter," he says.

"And that's something I think we need to say 'Are we really okay with that?'"

The caribou herd on Michipicoten Island is the only one left in northeastern Ontario and the southernmost in the world. (Christian Schroeder)

Schroeder is one of several voices from the area that are calling on the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to relocate the wolves from Michipicoten Island, which is also designated as a provincial park, as well as the Slate Islands further north, where a similar situation is playing out.

Leo Lepiano, the lands and resources consultation coordinator from the nearby Michipicoten First Nation, says it's been "frustrating" trying to get any information from the MNRF.

"It's been an opaque process trying to deal with them. We haven't been provided any numbers. Haven't been provided any long term plan," he says.

Lepiano says while there are very few with living memory of caribou in his community, they do have great cultural significance. Pictographs just to the south along Lake Superior are one of the few reminders that caribou were at one time found as far south as the French River.

Pictographs at Agawa Bay on Lake Superior depict caribou, which were once found across northern Ontario and as far south as the French River. (Leo Lepiano)

No one from the ministry was made available for an interview, but it did provide a statement:

  •   The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Ontario Parks has not made any decisions, taken any direct management action or ruled out possible action in the future in regards to wildlife management on Michipicoten Island Provincial Park. 
  •   MNRF and Ontario Parks staff will continue to undertake several monitoring and research projects in Michipicoten Island Provincial Park including looking at ecological integrity of the island, population dynamics, predator-prey interactions (wolves, caribou, beaver), condition of the caribou and impacts of browsing on vegetation. 
  •  Researchers will be assessing caribou and wolf populations over time including investigating predation rates and changes in caribou movements in response to wolves, determining causes of caribou mortality, estimating adult caribou survival and juvenile recruitment and assessing caribou summer diet.