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Lake Superior caribou survival hanging in the balance, biologist says

A retired biologist says the survival of Lake Superior caribou is hanging in the balance due to the impact wolves have had on the herd.

Wolves ate 900 Lake Superior caribou in 4 years

This Slate Island bull caribou was photographed in 2008. Wolves all but decimated the herd when they arrived in 2014. (photo: Brain Mclaren)

A retired biologist says the survival of Lake Superior caribou is hanging in the balance due to the impact wolves have had on the herd.

Gord Eason, who had a long career with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, in Wawa, Ont., said wolves got to Michipicoten Island via an ice shelf five years ago.

So began the rapid decline of the herd.

"During the cold winter of 2014, three or four wolves got across to the island on the ice and they started to reproduce and built their numbers up to close to 20," said Eason."And there were around 900 caribou on Michipicoten Island according to our projections, and (the wolves) did them in in a matter of about four years. By last winter they were gone."

This past winter most of the wolves were trapped from Michipicoten Island and moved to Isle. Royale, in Michigan. The animals have been placed there to keep a booming moose herd in check.

Eason, who is working with a small group of people to help conserve and preserve Lake Superior caribou, said wolves also all but wiped out the animals on the Slate Islands.

Last winter, the Slate islands famous caribou herd was reduced to two male caribou.

"It's called functional extirpation, when your population can't recover because you are down to just one sex," he said

Eason said the OMNRF has been working to help the caribou and moved some females and another male to the Slates to get that population going.

Lake Superior caribou numbers have grown since 15 were airlifted to Caribou Island and the Slate Islands, but the mainland herd may have vanished. (photo: Brian Mclaren)

He said this past winter the last six caribou from Michipicoten Island were moved to remote Caribou Island, on Lake Superior.

Last year the Ontario government put out a discussion paper to revise the policy for managing the Lake Superior caribou.

The main purpose of this paper was to solicit input on a suite of management alternatives for these caribou.

Eason said the alternatives could be summarized as follows:

  • Keep caribou on the mainland along Lake Superior and large off-shore islands, and provide some connectivity to the continuous caribou range to the north.
  • Keep caribou on the mainland along Lake Superior and large off-shore islands, but not focus on providing connectivity to the continuous caribou range to the north.
  • Keep caribou just on the large off-shore islands in Lake Superior, with no proactive conservation efforts on the mainland.
  • Do nothing: No proactive conservation efforts to maintain caribou on the islands or the mainland.

Eason and his group believe only option 1 conforms with the Federal and Provincial endangered species legislation and policies on caribou.

Last month, Eason and the caribou conservation group were invited to a workshop in Thunder Bay on the topic of the Lake Superior caribou.

He said a wide variety of people attended the workshop including representatives from First Nations, municipalities, the federal government, forest industry, a hunter organization, nature group, and the caribou conservation group.

Lake Superior caribou, like this bull photographed on Michipicoten Island, are at the southern edge of the range in North America. (photo: Christian Schroeder)

He said the main purpose was to discuss the four options and vote on them, and then discuss the two with the most votes in more detail. He said in the end options two and three got the most votes, with the group returning to option one as well.

Eason also noted more than half the people in the room had concerns or complaints about how the province is managing for caribou north of Lake Superior.

However, by the end of the meeting the group saw one encouraging development.

"By the end of the discussion there seemed to be a consensus emerging that caribou could be maintained and even built up in the areas where they are now and in other protected areas along Lake Superior," he said. "The main objection seemed to be the widespread management for caribou in areas where they do not occur now or are unlikely to occur,"

Eason said the caribou conservation group believes there can be measures taken that would help caribou and reduce other conflicts, including creating a sub unit that includes just the caribou conservation and restoration areas.

"We think the conflicts between caribou conservation and other land uses along Lake Superior can be minimized to allow both to occur," he said.

Despite the precarious situation the coastal caribou are in, Eason said there doesn't seem to be a lot of understanding in the general public about what could be lost. 

These pictographs, found in Lake Superior Provincial Park, are of the caribou. (photo: Leo Lepiano)

"It's down to less than 20 animals on the main land, there are none on Michipicoten Island," he said. "There are 15 on the Slates, and six plus the calves that were born on Caribou Island. It's pretty grim." Eason said when a population of animals is less than 50, genetics and population security come into question.

He said the need to work together with stakeholders is an important message to get out to the general public, as that grassroots support is critical.

"There's got to be some effort and concern put into keeping the ones that are there around and build them up and keep caribou around Lake Superior," said Eason. "They are painted on the pictographs down there at Agawa. They are just part of what this place has been and we haven't got many of them left."