Gaspé caribou, the last of herds that once roamed the Maritimes, face extinction

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A mother and calf, part of the last remaining caribou herd south of the St. Lawrence River. The herd in Gaspésie National Park is endangered, with only about 50 animals remaining. (Frederic Lesmerises/submitted - image credit)
A mother and calf, part of the last remaining caribou herd south of the St. Lawrence River. The herd in Gaspésie National Park is endangered, with only about 50 animals remaining. (Frederic Lesmerises/submitted - image credit)

In the highlands of Gaspésie National Park, just a two-hour drive or so from Campbellton, you can find the only herd of caribou living south of the St. Lawrence River.

Numbering at around 50, this population of woodland caribou are the last remnant of what was once thousands of animals that roamed the Gaspé, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Overhunting and other factors wiped the herd out of existence in New Brunswick in the early part of the 20th century.

And, if things don't change soon, scientist Martin-Hugues St-Laurent believes the last herd will be gone before the middle of this century.

"A lot of isolated herds are facing extirpation," the biology professor from University of Quebec's Rimouski campus said, "It is a demonstration [that] what we did is wrong."

Woodland caribou, also known as boreal caribou, roamed New Brunswick's forests for thousands of years.

This photo from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick shows a woodland caribou. The note with the photo simply said 'last caribou shot in NB.' It is dated between 1906 and 1912.
This photo from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick shows a woodland caribou. The note with the photo simply said 'last caribou shot in NB.' It is dated between 1906 and 1912.(New Brunswick Provincial Archives)

But, in the late 1800s, sport hunting of the animals took off. U.S. hunters were promised the chance to take big game like moose and caribou, so they could take home a set of antlers.

The population collapsed fast, and by 1910, the hunting of caribou had been banned.

At the same time, white-tailed deer were moving into caribou country, thanks to increased logging and the wide-scale slaughter of wolves.

Scientists believe the deer brought with them a brain parasite that was fatal to caribou. For the already-stressed remaining herd, it was all too much to take.

By 1930 or so, caribou were considered extinct in New Brunswick.

Overhunting of caribou during the late 1800s and early 1900s eventually pushed the species to the point where it could not recover in New Brunswick. The small herd on the Gaspé is the last of its kind south of the St. Lawrence
Overhunting of caribou during the late 1800s and early 1900s eventually pushed the species to the point where it could not recover in New Brunswick. The small herd on the Gaspé is the last of its kind south of the St. Lawrence(New Brunswick Provincial Archives)

The caribou herds of the Gaspé were in some ways lucky to be geographically isolated on the peninsula.

But that has only really meant a slower decline than their New Brunswick counterparts.

St-Laurent, who grew up in Rimouski, said his family often travelled to the national park for hiking and skiing, and he was familiar with the caribou from a young age. He continued trips there as an adult.

"I spent a lot of time in the park as a tourist," he said, "I realized at that time there was a problem."

After doing early academic work on the effects of logging on small birds and mammals, he decided to turn his attention to the caribou herd, because "working on them was almost obligatory."

University of Quebec (Rimouski) biologist Martin-Hugues St-Laurent says the few animals left in the small caribou herd need help now, or they will disappear completely.
University of Quebec (Rimouski) biologist Martin-Hugues St-Laurent says the few animals left in the small caribou herd need help now, or they will disappear completely.(Submitted)

The herd had not really been studied.

"There was an empty seat, and I was interested in filling it."

The Atlantic Gaspésie caribou were declared endangered in 2004

In the 1980s, the herd was estimated to number about 220 animals. By 2008, St-Laurent and his students had that number pegged at about 180. Now it's 50.

This herd is genetically distinct, mainly because "they have no other choice," he said.

Their low genetic diversity also raises concerns over how able they are to cope with change.

One would think that a herd of animals living in an 800-square-kilometre national park, where logging and hunting aren't allowed, would be doing just fine.

A bull caribou in Gaspésie National Park.  St-Laurent says it may be necessary to introduce new animals into the herd to add genetic diversity.
A bull caribou in Gaspésie National Park. St-Laurent says it may be necessary to introduce new animals into the herd to add genetic diversity.(Frederic Lesmerises/submitted)

St-Laurent said it's what's going on around the park that is threatening the herd.

He said there are cutblocks, forest areas designated for harvest, all around the caribou's national park sanctuary, where extensive logging has taken place over the past 25 years.

Clear-cutting and numerous logging roads have led to a steep increase in coyote habitat, making it easy for them to hunt and move, and the population has done well.

St-Laurent said coyotes are using those same cutblocks and roads to travel into the park with ease, especially during calving season in the spring.

He said there are some measures that could be taken in the short term to help the caribou.

Those include an increased predator cull in the area, possibly putting mothers and calves in pens during the early, vulnerable days of a calf's life, or bringing in outside animals to help build up the herd's strength.

The long term solution is tougher.

"Imagine we go out fishing and we realize there's a hole in the boat," St-Laurent said, "We can try to keep scooping out the water, but we really know what we have to do is fill the hole.

"Well, the forest industry is enlarging the hole."

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, an advisory panel to the federal minister of the environment, reviewed the status of the Atlantic Gaspésie caribou last fall.

Its report identifies a number of threats to the herd but rates logging and predation as the most intense pressure on the animals.

It is now working on an action plan for dealing with those issues.

Not enough time?

But it's not known how long that might take. The legislation it works under gives the committee five years to come up with that plan.

No one from Environment Canada was available to comment on the process and timeline before publication time.

St-Laurent doesn't think there is the political will to stop logging in the area.

"It's the same opposition between making money from the forests and taking care of the forests," he said.

"I don't know if I am naive, but it took a lot of pressure to make changes so far."

He said scientists, citizens and especially First Nations have been an important voice for the last caribou south of the St. Lawrence River.

But, St-Laurent said, it's a battle against time and one they may be losing.

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