Three of the last seven remaining caribou of the Val-d'Or herd escaped from their enclosure last summer and remained on the loose for several months before being recaptured — an incident that until now had been kept quiet by Quebec's Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks (MFFP).
Expressing concern about the living conditions of woodland caribou in captivity, two separate sources recently reported the events to Radio-Canada.
When asked about the situation, the MFFP confirmed the incident to Radio-Canada.
"On June 14, 2021, at approximately 12:45 p.m., strong winds caused by a thunderstorm forced open the doors of the enclosure, allowing three caribou to escape," the ministry said in an email. Among the escapees were two adult males and one adult female.
It wasn't until Nov. 2, nearly five months later, that the three runaways were finally recaptured and brought back to the enclosure by a ministry team.
When asked about the delay in recapturing the animals, the MFFP said experts recommended the ministry wait until the fall to carry out its operation, considering certain risks associated with the hot weather.
"The capture of caribou must be done under favourable conditions to minimize the risk of injury and ensure the well-being of the animals," the ministry explained.
The three caribou were eventually captured with a net-gun during a helicopter operation involving "experienced shooters," biologists, technicians and veterinarians.
A well-kept secret
During the animals' absence, the MFFP kept the situation quiet, arguing that announcing it publicly might do more harm than good.
It said ministry employees were able to track the movements of the caribou thanks to radio tracking collars fitted on each animal as part of their placement in the Val-d'Or enclosure in March 2020.
"The MFFP knew their movements and locations [...] Releasing the information only risked piquing people's curiosity and creating situations that could put the caribou at risk," the ministry said.
However, the ministry had several subsequent opportunities to speak about the incident.
The latest was last week, during a technical briefing offered to journalists on the use of enclosures to protect isolated caribou herds in Charlevoix, Val-d'Or and the Gaspé. At no time during the presentation did ministry representatives mention the trouble with the enclosure in Val-d'Or.
That said, the event was significant enough to prompt the modification of all caribou enclosures in Quebec.
The MFFP said the procedure for closing and opening doors has been revised to ensure the enclosure is kept sealed and the doors are prevented from opening unintentionally.
Ministry 'shirking its responsibilities,' expert says
Biologist and woodland caribou expert Serge Couturier says the escape of the three caribou could have been very costly in the sense that there are only seven caribou left in the isolated Val-d'Or herd.
"These three animals could have encountered predators and died," he said, adding he is also concerned that the animals may not have mated during their leave.
"This escape shows that the [ministry] is shirking its responsibilities as guardian of an endangered species," he said.
Couturier deplores the fact that the surveillance of the enclosures, while continuously patrolled by an employee on site, is entrusted in what he calls inexperienced "trainees."
"They do their best, but they don't have the expertise to manage the care of large animals like caribou," he said.
Couturier says this situation shows that the provincial government lacks commitment and professionalism in its approach to protecting the endangered species and their habitats.
Quebec's independent commission on woodland and mountain caribou, currently doing public hearings across several regions, is in Abitibi-Témiscamingue this week.
There are currently only 5,252 woodland or mountain caribou known to be left in Quebec.
The herd in Val-d'Or, as well as those in Charlevoix and the Gaspé — whose enclosures only have 16 and 35 caribou, respectively — are on the verge of extinction.