We are witnessing the disappearance of one of our most iconic inhabitants of the boreal forest, a species some describe as the “grey ghosts”: if industry and logging continue to carve into the forest, Ontario’s woodland caribou may be gone by the end of the century
by Ray Ford
Tugging on his toque and mitts to ward off the biting cold of a February day in Wabakimi Provincial Park, 250 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ontario Parks ecologist Steven Kingston surveys the gore on the frozen lake ahead. “Looks like the wolves were having a party,” he says, treading between little pyramids of wolf dung, and avoiding the nose-wrinkling yellow stains the predators have left in the snow to mark their buffet.
“Yeah, they’re not very tidy house guests,” agrees Natasha Carr, a biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), turning her attention to the victim. “We’ll look at the teeth. Maybe it’s an old caribou.”
Carr frowns as she brushes snow and blood off the jaw. “They look pretty healthy. I think this could be a younger animal.”
Kingston and Carr are like sleuths in a disappearing species case – one that is taking place on a vast scale. Since 1880, Ontario’s woodland caribou have lost half their range – a staggering 35,000 square kilometres per decade. Rough estimates indicate that some 5,000 caribou remain from a population that once extended as far south as Algonquin Provincial Park. If caribou numbers continue to drop at this rate, the species could disappear by the end of this century.
Much more than the fate of the caribou is at stake however. In Ontario, the species, which roams across the top of North America, Europe, and Asia, is so integral to the health of the boreal forest that Justina Ray, executive director of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, calls their decline “a first indicator that something could be going wrong” with the northern ecosystem. The boreal region stores vast amounts of carbon and water and helps buffer climate change; if that buffer fails, the caribou’s decline may presage our own.
That is one of the reasons why our group – Carr, Kingston, Gary Kwandibens, formerly the economic development officer with the Whites and First Nation, and pilot Pat Dickey – are playing detective. We’re in the midst of at two-day helicopter survey of Wabakimi, where caribou are near the southern limit of their range. For decades, if a caribou fell in the forest, few outside the local First Nations community were likely to notice, much less care. But in the spring of 2007 the Ontario government, spurred in part by the efforts of Ontario Nature, and complementing similar moves under the federal Species at Risk Act, put caribou on a fast track for protection (see “The first 10”).
The attention is due in part to the caribou itself, a magnificent creature with elegant lines and art-deco antlers. But it also stems from the animal’s role as an indicator species. If the caribou thrives, so does the boreal forest, with its wolverine, marten, migratory waterfowl and warblers. “The caribou is an icon of the wilderness, and its preservation depends on maintaining the vast wild landscapes of northern Ontario,” says Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education.
Despite the increased interest in caribou, they remain among the most elusive of big animals – difficult to find, let alone study. Before calving, the females hole up in bogs or on islands, in densities as sparse as one cow per 20 square kilometres – the equivalent of just 32 caribou in an area the size of Toronto.
At meal times, they stake out the least-popular item in the boreal salad bar: lichen, especially in winter, when other plants are scarce. Bearding the limbs of ancient blackspruce, or colonizing exposed bedrock where nothing else will survive, lichen allows caribou to roam beneath the dense cover of the boreal forest.
Swift enough to top 75 kilometres per hour and rugged enough to range over 10,000 square kilometres, caribou are “built for movement,” says Trent University caribou specialist James Schaefer, who has studied the animals from Nunavut to Newfoundland. “They have a lower cost of moving one kilogram one kilometre than any other land animal. Theonly animal that rivals them is the wildebeest.”
All of this makes caribou a shadowy presence in the remotest of areas, and a difficult target for predators. Caribou have been so sparse, unpredictable and mobile that wolves would rather focus their efforts on more plentiful moose and deer.The result is a predator–prey balance that “seems to work,”says Alberta biologist Liv Vors, a veteran of north-western Ontario caribou surveys. “As long as people don’t get in there and start messing things around.”
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Thundering over Wabakimi’s snow-covered landscape aboard a bright yellow helicopter, Carr and Kingston share the predator’s dilemma: there’s a lot of ground to cover and relatively few caribou to find. They scout for caribou on ice-covered lakes, scanning shores and clearings for the animal’s distinctive trails of crescent-shaped hoof prints.
Spying a trampled clearing in a spruce bog south of Wabakimi, Carr asks pilot Dickey to land. She is searching for solid proof of the caribou’s presence: their droppings.
“It’s a lot easier to find them in the winter, because you can use the tracks to see where the caribou are feeding,” Carr says, sifting the snow and retrieving a handful of frozen, brown pellets. This is no small accomplishment, because “caribou poop” is as useful, scientifically speaking, as a blood sample.
When these pellets arrive at Trent University, biology professor Paul Wilson will analyse the genetic variations in the samples. Healthy populations with room to roam show a high degree of genetic diversity. Isolated groups, hemmed in by development or living on islands, have more uniform genes – evidence they are at risk of becoming inbred.
Wilson’s research is part of the interest in woodland caribou that spiked shortly after Wabakimi Park was created in 1983. Since then researchers have radio-collared caribou and tracked their movements, scouted calving spots, catalogued key habitat and mapped DNA.
Part of the effort involves understanding how much land caribou need. After its expansion in 1997, Wabakimi became Ontario’s second-largest provincial park, and at 8,900 square kilometres it’s larger than Prince Edward Island. Even so, the park may not be big enough for the wide-ranging caribou. Much of the land to the southwest is already cross-hatched with logging cuts, and as Carr collects droppings, the distant rumble of trains on the CN Rail main line filters through the spruce. When the pellet samples are analyzed, the genetic diversity they reveal will help determine whether these animals near the park’s southern boundary still have enough living space.
Pellets safely stowed, we climb back into the chopper for the day’s main event, surveying tracks and sightings of caribou, moose, wolves and (to gauge the level of human activity) snowmobiles. After experiencing the chill of the spruce bog, we are warmed by the sun pouring through the panoramic windows. The rotors whine rhythmically as the empty lakes and forested hills of south Wabakimi sweep by beneath us. To the north, serpentine creeks meander across the lowlands.
Over crackling radio headsets Carr, Kingston and Kwandibens discuss a local trapper’s sighting of about 30 caribou on a lake just south of the park. “It’s great to hear that,” Carr tells me. “It’s been five or ten years since such large groups were reported in this area.”
Then, not far from the west side of the park, five sorrel dots are thrown into brilliant relief against the dazzling white of the lake’s surface. An antlered bull is in the lead, four other caribou following with a fluid, effortless gait. We swing by just long enough to count them. Carr makes notes as the herd recedes into the white distance.
Within a few minutes, the helicopter clatters over a second group near Wabakimi Lake. The leader looks up and tosses his antlers. Behind him, three caribou dance skittishly in the snow. “Think we’re spooking them?” Dickey asks.
“Not at this distance,” Carr replies.
Then as the helicopter swings north, Kingston spots a pink smear on the ice. Closing in to investigate, we see the stain become a carcass, circled by two smaller figures, one dark, the other a striking tawny red. Wolves at the kill.
“Wolves don’t like to share,” Dickey says, looking for a safe place to land as the predators lope away.
“They aren’t going very far,” adds Kwandibens. Only when the helicopter makes another low sweep does the pair sprint for cover on the opposite shore.
Out on the frozen lake, Carr gets to work, reconstructing how the caribou died and tearing off a chunk of its flank for DNA testing. Surprised by the predators and separated from the herd, this animal made its last stand on the lake, trampling the snow as it fought off a circle of wolves. At some point a big gray wolf caught the quarry by the throat, crushing its windpipe and taking it down. The wolves we saw might not even be the perpetrators, Carr adds. The actual killers could be sleeping off the feast, while the duo we chased away were merely scavengers. True enough, after takeoff, we see three more wolves lounging in the sun on Finton Lake. The leader – a big, dark gray wolf – snarls, hair bristling on its back. The other wolves stretch and slink toward the bush.
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