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 email@example.com (416-325-1941) and Minister Yurek, Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks at firstname.lastname@example.org (416-314-6790/1-800-265-7638) and request that they:
Locate the last of the Lake Superior mainland caribou and move them to a predator-free island. This will give their population a chance to rebuild and support future re-establishment along the shoreline.
Assess and address habitat changes to restore caribou habitat along the mainland of Lake Superior and connect with the continuous caribou habitat to the north. This work should be collaborative and involve Indigenous communities, municipalities, local citizens, hunters, industries and conservation organizations.
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.
Mirabai is Ontario Nature’s Nature-based Tourism Intern based in Thunder Bay. In 2018, she graduated from Dalhousie University with a Master of Environmental Studies, where she examined the effect of moose browse on forest songbirds in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Mirabai worked as a fish/wildlife field technician for several years in Ontario and taught Environmental Science at the University of British Columbia in 2019. She is happiest in the outdoors, whether it be mountain biking, birding or trail running.