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© Lora Denis
I grew up in Rossport on the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario. The summers brought tourists from all over, and many visited my dad’s pottery shop. Many tourists said they came to paddle Lake Superior and see the caribou, which inhabited the Slate Islands off the shoreline behind our house. I felt proud to have caribou in my community. We were so lucky to provide refuge for this elusive creature.
The history of caribou in our area was told to me in bits and pieces. Older residents spoke of American hunters in the early 1900s bringing ‘tugboat’ loads of caribou to the main dock, providing a vast contrast to the eager kayakers that often clutter the docking space during the summer these days.
When I was a kid, my mom and other teachers at Schreiber Public School, helped us write a story about how the caribou could be saved, after hearing some wolves, a key caribou predator, had made it to the Slate Islands. This happened during a very cold winter when the lake water between the islands and the mainland froze. In later years, I worked at a local kayak shop that providing guided tours there. At the time, seeing caribou was almost guaranteed and was a highlight for many visitors.
Now, only ten years later, the Lake Superior caribou population has almost completely collapsed. It’s shocking to witness their precipitous decline in my lifetime, from hundreds to near extinction. Kayakers should be able to see caribou all along the proposed Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area as they once did along the shoreline at Pukaskwa National Park.
Lake Superior caribou were separated from the rest of the caribou in Ontario in the mid-1970s. Distancing themselves away from their predators, and their predators’ primary prey, has served caribou well for over a million years. However, they have become increasingly vulnerable to predation as their movement has been impeded by development, including railroads, roads, and urban expansion. Meanwhile, access roads, trails, and hydro lines have facilitated the movements of predators and increased their encounters with caribou. Human-caused changes to their forest habitat have also increased other prey species like moose and deer, resulting in more predators and more predation on the caribou.
For Lake Superior caribou, these changes have resulted in a steady decline in their numbers and range along the shoreline. Recently there have only been a few caribou observed along the north shore between Marathon and Rossport.
The fate of the caribou living on Lake Superior islands has also been dire. Wolves reached Slate and Michipicoten islands on the ice in 2014. By 2018, only two male caribou were left on the Slate Islands. A few of the last remaining caribou on Michipicoten Island were moved to restart the population on the Slate Islands and to create a backup population on Caribou Island in the middle of Lake Superior. These relocations were thanks to pressure from concerned local citizens, and crucial help from the Michipicoten First Nation.
In recent years, biologists have assessed the population levels of the caribou on the Lake Superior shorelines and islands. They are concerned that there are too few caribou left on the mainland shores to bolster their numbers by adding more caribou from elsewhere, as some have proposed. (And caribou are not doing well elsewhere either). The situation is now critical. It appears that the only option is to locate and move any remaining caribou remaining on the Lake Superior shorelines to preserve their unique genetic and behaviour diversity, which is crucial if our intentions are to reestablish these caribou.
The extirpation of these animals – the southernmost mainland caribou in Ontario – would harm the state of caribou across Ontario. If they are lost, the range of caribou will recede north about 100 kilometres. This type of population loss and range recession is the harbinger of extinction and should force us to rethink how we are managing the land.
I ask you to call and/or write Premier Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org (416-325-1941) and Minister Yurek, Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks at email@example.com (416-314-6790/1-800-265-7638) and request that they:
Why shouldn’t we just let “nature take its course”? Because it wasn’t “nature” that got us here. It was a series of decisions made over many decades. When biological diversity is in crisis, we cannot abdicate our stewardship duties because that’s what is easiest. Caribou have done their job. They’ve warned us that our impacts on the land are not sustainable. We have a responsibility to caribou and the ecosystems of the north shore to do what we can to restore these systems: for ourselves, for the caribou and for future generations.
To learn more: twitter.com/SuperiorCaribou
Thanks, Ontario Nature and Mirabai Alexander, for drawing attention to this sad story which is transpiring in the backyards of Ontarians. Sad though it may be, there’s still ample room for hope if folks pressure the Ontario government to undertake the actions the article cites.
I’m glad caribou populations in Canada’s western regions get the media attention they do. Many caribou populations all over the country are – let’s speak the truth – collapsing completely. The attention is necessary and deserved. Notwithstanding that, it’s always struck me as odd that the Lake Superior caribou don’t get similar levels of attention. Around 2013, this population exceeded 1,000 individuals. By 2018 the population had collapsed to around two dozen animals – seventeen on Lake Superior’s offshore islands, and, it’s guessed, a few hold-outs on Lake Superior’s north shore. I can’t think of a caribou population in Canada which has experienced a similar precipitous decline in as short a period of time, and which has gone from so secure to so imperiled. This represents an abject, embarrassing, and shameful management disaster perpetrated by the Ontario government.
Not nearly enough people in Canada appreciate this caribou population, one as significant as any other. In 2013, it was easy for someone from southern Ontario to hop into a car and drive ten hours north to Sault Ste. Marie or Wawa to hop on a boat to see woodland caribou on Michipicoten Island with effectively 100% certainty. It was still possible in times after the 1980s to, with luck, see caribou from the comfort of one’s automobile crossing the Trans-Canada highway in Lake Superior Provincial Park, just a touch over an hour north of Sault Ste. Marie. Contrast that with attempting to see caribou elsewhere in Canada: In British Columbia, where woodland caribou populations are small and/or highly diffuse and/or remotely located – or gone entirely – seeing woodland caribou reliably is difficult and improbable. In Canada’s far north, seeing barren-ground caribou reliably likely entails expensive airplane rides and expedition-level planning. In Ontario, we had at our fingertips the ability to witness this beautiful animal with relative ease. While that’s no more the case, you can help to change that.
Eastern and central northern Ontario’s caribou populations once extended northward from a line along Lake Superior’s north shore east along Lake Huron’s north shore, down to the French River – a scant few hours’ drive north of Toronto – and on to the Ottawa river. As the excellent map provided by the blog entry shows, the area north of Lake Superior’s north shore is now only sporadically occupied by caribou; that’s why the Ontario government calls it the “Discontinuous Distribution”. It’s within that area that logging and other interests are ripping through the forest, indelibly changing it to the detriment of caribou and myriad other species. Unfortunately for those interests, there’s a species at risk of extinction which persists, however perilously, south of that area: The Lake Superior caribou. So long as caribou exist along Lake Superior’s north shore, the Ontario government is forced to concede that the discontinuous distribution is also potentially caribou habitat. That, in turn, means that industry and environmental assessments are forced to consider how their activities, real or proposed, will affect caribou. Wouldn’t it just be easier if Lake Superior’s caribou were gone? It’s been my position that this is exactly what the Ontario government desires, because having one less charismatic species at risk of extinction to consider makes logging and the environmental assessments for whatever else will be foisted on the land so much easier to undertake. I’ve further mused that the Ontario government was hoping that the Lake Superior caribou would quietly blink out, largely unnoticed by the public, by the end of the last decade. Unfortunately for the government, the public and Michipicoten First Nation – an indigenous community which was not consulted in relation to what Ontario was doing with the caribou in its traditional territory – did notice. Thanks to these folks and the resulting public groundswell of support, the Lake Superior caribou did not blink out.
Should you write to the Ontario government as requested by the blog entry, it will advise you that a consultation and discussion has commenced and/or is ongoing regarding what to do with the Lake Superior caribou. That response – a poor attempt at gaslighting – is really a way to try to make you go away, something I hope you won’t do. It also hopes you don’t understand the larger overall context. Ontario’s caribou conservation plan and similar federal documents state that caribou populations shall be managed to maintain self-sustaining status, or otherwise shall be managed so as to achieve self-sustaining status. The Lake Superior caribou population was very much self-sustaining until 2013. Now that the population has crashed and the “going” suddenly “got tough” – not really tough, but certainly demanding of active intervention the province doesn’t want to undertake – the Ontario government wants to move the goal posts while hoping you don’t notice. Remember: There already is a very clear Ontario government plan in place – installed well before 2013 – which is not up for arbitrary revision when the government deems it opportune to do so. Before the Ontario government bungled the management of the Lake Superior caribou, the goal was – and remains – to keep them around since they were a self-sustaining population. That meant managing them so that the caribou remained on Lake Superior’s islands and along the lake’s north shore. Now, after the bungle, Ontario seeks to re-write the plan so as to keep caribou on just the islands but no longer along the north shore, thereby realizing the ultimate goal of getting rid of caribou on Lake Superior’s north shore and, by extension, within the discontinuous distribution. Ontario is looking for any reasons it can find to not have to manage Lake Superior’s north shore caribou for persistence. Please don’t let Ontario get away with this; it isn’t a done deal. Just because numerous interests want caribou gone from Lake Superior’s north shore and the discontinuous distribution and are pushing the Ontario government to make this a reality doesn’t mean that any of us should accept it. Caribou always were there, and they should always remain there – no compromises.
The time for talk and consultation was over before 2013. Ontario’s currently in-force caribou conservation plan was what resulted from talk and consultation. Time is not on the caribou’s side. If any caribou remain on Lake Superior’s north shore, they need to be moved to island refuges no later than this winter so that the important genetics of this tiny population can be maintained. Breeding and translocation can later be used to repopulate caribou on the north shore. Ontario’s government must be prohibited from quietly rewriting the management goals of the Lake Superior caribou to remove Lake Superior’s north shore from the caribou’s “official” range and, further, from permanently depopulating the discontinuous distribution.
Those advocating for Lake Superior’s caribou maintain a Twitter feed @Superiorcaribou – something everyone can easily read even without a Twitter account – and they also maintain a rudimentary website:
Check these sources from time to time for updates. You can also contact these folks via email:
These folks are always happy to hear from you.
Please re-locate Lake Superior caribou herd to a predator-free island to allow the herd to be re-built. It also necessary that caribou habitat along Lake Superior be assessed and restored. Please facilitate this.
Please do whatever you can to save the caribou.