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Opinion: Ministry’s incompetent effort to save caribou could have the opposite effect

‘It may be a fool’s errand trying to stop change, but for caribou, such beautiful and enigmatic animals, it is absolutely worth trying — if it can be done wisely and effectively and without interference from those charged under law to protect them’
180222_Woodland_Caribou_Southern_Selkirk_Mountains_of_Idaho_2007 (Steve Forrest, Creative Cokmmons Attribution 2.0 Generic)
Woodland caribou.

Recently I wrote an article describing some of the documents intended to protect our natural resources, and how, at least in the case of moose and caribou, the objectives cannot possibly be met because the practises to manage these species are completely in conflict.

The Lake Superior caribou in Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 21A are the most southerly population in Ontario and were nearly driven to extinction by mismanagement, and what appears to be the willful neglect and incompetence of Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) staff.

The following comes mostly from a retired biologist in Wawa (1). He is part of a small group (“the Group”) that has been pressing the Ontario government to conserve the last of the Lake Superior caribou. They were the leaders in the early days, and at least to my way of thinking, they are continuing to try to provide leadership in the absence of any from the government. 

Caribou have been in the Lake Superior area, both on the mainland and the islands, since shortly after the last Ice Age. The Trans-Canada Highway, completed in 1960, opened this remote area to many changes. 

The caribou have slowly disappeared largely through habitat change and resulting predation, but also from a variety of other causes like train kills. Attempts to retain or restore them have had a very up and down history in both the population and effort senses. They are down to "few, if any" on the mainland and currently "few" on the islands. 

The reasons are many and complex, but it seems like there is an intentional barrage of excuses from the government for doing nothing to meet their obligations under the Endangered Species Act. 

The Group started off just trying to keep the Michipicoten Island caribou around, but events happened that nearly eliminated all these caribou. Michipicoten is 184 square kilometres, and has had more than 900 caribou (five per square kilometre). The Slate Islands are 40 square kilometres and have had caribou populations of more than 10 per square kilometre, the highest densities of woodland caribou in the world.  

Wolves got to both the Slate Islands and Michipicoten Island in the polar vortex winter of 2014 when ice bridges from the mainland formed to both areas. Although wolves had reached the Slates at other times, this time they killed all the caribou, except two bulls, before the wolves themselves died out by 2017. 

Caribou had been extirpated from Michipicoten by the 1880s, probably due to overhunting for food for mining camps. Eight caribou were introduced in 1982 and increased to more than 900 by 2014, when three or four wolves arrived. The wolves increased to about 20 by 2018 and extirpated the caribou population.

Just before that extirpation, eight caribou were moved to the Slates to restart the population and six were moved to Caribou Island to start a backup population.

These islands are normally free of large predators, and the caribou on them will eventually increase and exceed the capacity of the habitat to support them. Without predation or hunting to regulate the herd, they will over-browse and starve. It seems far more humane and consistent with conservation statements expressed in the Caribou Conservation Plan (CCP, 2) to use them to re-establish mainland populations. The alternative is to let them starve to death.

Right now, the restored caribou population on the Slate Islands is thought to be in the low 30s. There are probably about 20 on Caribou Island. There are still no caribou on Michipicoten Island, but there is a plan for caribou to be restored there again.

It is estimated that habitat on the Slates can sustain about 100 caribou, too many to translocate every year. The first priority should be to move as many as is practical. After that, the most obvious solution would be controlled harvest. 

The world won’t implode and there is no need to shut down the stock exchange. Killing a threatened species to keep them from habitat destruction and extinction seems like a conundrum, but life will go on – and better because of it.

First Nations have the right to harvest them and that harvest should be encouraged and planned to keep the population in harmony with the habitat. Depending on their needs, hunting could be permitted for non-Indigenous people, preferably under First Nations control, thus providing them with economic benefits while ensuring sustainability of the population. Indigenous communities have also criticized the Caribou Conservation Plan.

And then there may be the possibility of ecotourism. Of course this will require a change in the Endangered Species Act, and with government inertia (and absence of common sense), you know how likely that will be. 

The situation with the caribou on the mainland along the north shore of Lake Superior is more dire. Caribou have been gone from Pukaskwa National Park for 10 years and recent surveys suggest that very few, if any, are left along the north shore.

The Group has identified habitat protection and improvement, managing predator numbers, preventing wolves from feeding at dumps, and augmenting and restoring caribou by translocations as the actions required to protect and restore caribou on the mainland.  

However the Group states: "As far as we are aware, there is no desire for the Ontario Government to do any of these actions … The official reason is that the policy review for the Lake Superior caribou has not been completed … Apparently, the real reason is that the people responsible believe that the ecosystem in the area is no longer suitable for caribou and any efforts to conserve caribou would be futile and a waste of money and time. These people may also be influenced by the vocal opinions that caribou negatively impact logging, mining and moose hunting. It appears that individual agency staff have replaced official legislation, policy and plans with their own personal views that caribou conservation is too impractical, too risky, too expensive, or too unpopular. These views are erroneous.”

Although the CCP (2) (likely the incomplete “policy review” mentioned above) was only published in 2020 and updated in 2021, it contains a Minister's Message by Donna Canfield, the minister from 2007 through 2009, refers to MNR (not MNRF or even MNDMNRF), and states that “local population ranges for more northern areas will be identified by 2012.” Some of those surveys may have been done, but none of my contacts know if or how they have been used. 

I believe the plan was originally written in 2008, but only published in 2020 and already updated. Yes, the wheels of government move slowly and apparently with some degree of sloppiness. One has to wonder how critical that review was when they couldn’t even get the minister correct? 

The point is that there was, in fact, a caribou conservation policy, albeit only a draft in place, and this could have directed “interim actions” to protect the population.

There have been other excuses for the failures to conserve caribou: that they shouldn't be reintroduced into Pukaskwa National Park until the habitat is suitable, perhaps in 50 years; that reintroduced populations wouldn't be self-sustaining and would need continual effort, and; that the restored caribou wouldn’t have the proper genetics. 

As an obvious rebuttal to this last argument, the Group suggests the few remaining Lake Superior caribou, in fact, have the very best genes because they have survived huge extinction pressures for decades.

Most of the proposed actions required to conserve caribou have just been ignored, but one has been specifically forbidden. Major construction projects require environmental approval. Where a project may negatively affect a species, conditions are applied to prevent or compensate for potential damage.

NextBridge Infrastructure, the company twinning the power line north of Lake Superior, proposed three translocations as part of their overall benefit agreement. This was supported by the Michipicoten First Nation (MFN), who have been most active in caribou conservation in the area.

The first transfer was to move caribou back to Michipicoten. The second transfer was to the north shore to retain them in the area of the power line. The third transfer was to re-establish another population on the mainland along the northeast part of Lake Superior, like Pukaskwa National Park. Despite that this would clearly be an overall benefit, the MNRF did not approve, and expressly forbade, the two proposed transfers to the mainland (1).

The reintroduction to Michipicoten has been delayed for four years because two wolves remained, apparently surviving on beaver and hares. The MNRF refused to remove them to permit the transfer. The hare population appears to have dropped and it is doubtful the wolves will survive. Hopefully, this transfer may go ahead this year.  

There are more examples where the MNRF has resisted conservation and restoration. From 2015 to 2018, MNRF refused to remove the wolves from Michipicoten Island. They put radio collars on numerous caribou and wolves and followed their fate, presumably to determine death rates, predator evasion behaviour and habitat, and the characteristics of kill locations — all fabulous research to be applied to a non-existent population. Now if that isn’t stupid, I really don’t know what is. Apparently, the intent was to “study them to extinction.”

This generated a lot of negative public opinion and resulted in the translocations noted above. The end result was still the entire loss of the Michipicoten herd, which was considered the anchor population for the Lake Superior caribou. Had it not been for the "just in time" funding to move animals from Michipicoten before they were extirpated, the entire Lake Superior population would have been lost.

Even the establishment of the population on Caribou Island was an issue with MNRF. It was only approved when the Michipicoten First Nation (MFN) offered to help fund the project. 

Initially, four female caribou, but only one male were transferred. The MNRF then shut down the project saying that was “good enough” and there was not enough funding for them to continue. MFN and the caribou group made the argument that at least two males needed to be moved to provide bare minimum genetic diversity and security for the male component of that population, otherwise the next generation of caribou would all be breeding with their siblings and half siblings.

The damage of inbreeding is a pretty basic biological understanding and failure to recognize that is about the best (or worst) example of the “ignorance” of MNRF staff that I’ve heard of. That level of incompetence almost suggests a planned effort to sabotage the introduction.

This concern was ignored by MNRF, but it received media publicity. This caught the attention of the Weston Foundation (Weston breads, Loblaws, Superstores, etc.) which offered to fund the transfer of the second male. Initially, this offer was refused by MNRF, still insisting that one bull was enough. They reversed that decision the next day.  

So, with funding from the Weston Foundation, the Elizabeth Elliot Foundation (private owner of most of Caribou Island), and the Michipicoten First Nation, the second male got moved.  He was a large animal, with wolf teeth marks on his neck. The transfer crew named him “Weston”.

In summary, the basic conservation principles described in the CCP 2) have not motivated the MNRF to conserve or restore the Lake Superior caribou. Hopefully, caribou will be restored to Michipicoten Island, but only because of one-time funding from a power line company. MNRF has expressed no intention of restoring caribou to Michipicoten Island on their own, even though their “research” and inaction resulted in the extirpation of those caribou in the first place. Were it not for the “nick of time” translocations to the Slates and Caribou, the entire Lake Superior population would have been extirpated. 

The reluctance of MNRF to act to protect species in difficulty is not limited to caribou.  Many years ago I personally witnessed a senior Ontario biologist express the opinion that he wished that elk in the Burwash area, south of Sudbury, "would disappear" so the MNR wouldn’t have to deal with them. 

I’m surprised he didn’t hurt himself doing cartwheels when the last wood buffalo was killed near Killarney by poachers. It seems like the same attitude prevails towards the Lake Superior caribou.

The CCP (2) recognizes the reality that caribou did live on the north shore. It created a zone, OH6, to identify that area as continuous range. The Group recommended that MNRF divide WMU 21A to create a new unit (WMU 21C) specifically for caribou. Because of its small size, it would have minimal impact on trend information regarding moose in 21A. It would permit true caribou management in that area and allow for more moose and better moose management in the rest of 21A. 

This simple and intelligent solution was rejected by senior managers, apparently because WMUs are immutable. That, too, is rubbish. I made several changes to WMU boundaries in the Northwest. While fixed boundaries are desirable, mainly for long-term trend analysis, they can certainly be changed with good reason, and this seems to be one.

The essential point of this story is that, in spite of lofty words and grandiose, but vague commitments, managers at MNRF (and possibly the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks since 2018) are not only failing to fulfil those legal commitments, but again are stifling the efforts of those who are trying to do so.

As a couple of final thoughts: Most evidence to date suggests that caribou and logging are not compatible because of habitat disturbance, changes in the movements and hunting success of wolves and subsistence hunters due to roads. In fact, logging in the boreal forest and caribou have common objectives — mature conifer forests. 

The problem is how to achieve that in a manner that is mutually beneficial. The plan identifies a commitment to study this — if it is actually followed through and not just ignored.

There seems to be little recognition in the documents that human activities can permanently change ecosystems, although actions by individuals as regards Lake Superior caribou, do appear to acknowledge that, in contradiction to law and policy. Taken in total, the planning documents are a blanket statement to prevent or undo that possibility, ignoring reality. 

In the real world, as far as animals go, there are winners and losers and natural events can override the best of man's intentions. The loss of caribou on the Slate and Michipicoten Islands to wolves and the forest fires destroying much of the habitat in Woodland Caribou Park this year, are examples. 

It may be a fool’s errand trying to stop change, but for caribou, such beautiful and enigmatic animals, it is absolutely worth trying — if it can be done wisely and effectively and without interference from those charged under law to protect them. 

There are two action items I would recommend for the minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, Greg Rickford, if he is sincerely interested in his portfolio.

He needs to facilitate the creation of WMU 21C from zone OH 6 in the CCP (or obtain an acceptable reason why it cannot be done) and get on with the actions required to restore that population – at least as an interim measure pending full public involvement regarding Ontario’s caribou. 

He should also determine (in consultation with outside experts) why Nextbridge Infrastructure was refused the opportunity to re-establish populations on the mainland. Caribou are no longer his responsibility but the guidelines for their conservation and certain management actions apparently still are.

As an interesting sidebar: with regional staff taking over moose management and the loss of caribou to MECP, MNRF wildlife biologists have little to do except review forest management plans. This is not the greatest job description if you are trying to attract “the best and the brightest” biologists to manage Ontario’s wildlife.

When I was a younger man, life was so much simpler. The Department of Lands and Forests took care of land disposition and logging, basically wild things. Fish and wildlife were in there, but not in the title. To correct that, it became the Ministry of Natural Resources and included parks. 

More recently forestry was added, possibly because it is no longer considered a “natural” resource, but who really knows? That is now the the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry. 

The Ministry of the Environment took care of issuing permits to prevent environmental damage and dealing with things like pollution. Now they are responsible for species at risk, “conservation” and parks as well.

I’ve identified the problem that MECP is responsible for caribou, but MNDMNRF is responsible for their habitat and possibly predator control. I have also suggested that based on my experience working within government, this is a recipe that will prove disastrous for the Lake Superior caribou. More effort will be put into “who does what” than into on the ground management action. 

I’m thinking that to eliminate this problem the two ministries should be merged into the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, Environment, Conservation, Parks and (of course) Forestry (MNDMNRECPF). The cost savings, with the staff reductions, and fewer meetings required to resolve their differences and to "get on the same page” would fund meaningful work to restore caribou and sponsor public involvement in what might be in the best interest of the people of Ontario. 

I’m sure glad I’m retired when I did and no longer have to worry (yeah, right) about our wildlife resources or the risk they face.

Postscript. Apparently I was a good boy this year and Santa brought me the “Best of Canadian Geographic” (3) for 2021. It has an excellent article on the nearly precipitous decline in caribou across Canada and the dangers they face. It also notes that killing wolves may be required to save them. 

Interestingly there is also an indirect reference to the vague bureaucratic (meaningless) policies, mentioned in my earlier article. There is comment that the federal government preferred “a collaborative stewardship-based approach” instead of passing an emergency order, in 2018, to protect habitat for the Little Smoky population in B.C. Part of that population has since been extirpated.

Alan Bisset is a retired regional moose biologist and wildlife inventory program leader with the former Ministry of Natural Resources. He has written and published many papers on moose management, both Internally and in scientific journals. Bisset lives in Strathroy, west of London, Ontario.

References

  1. Personal communications with Gord Eason, retired wildlife biologist from Wawa, who has had a long history in caribou management. The Group includes a university professor, biologists and members of the public. They work with the Michipocoten First Nation in the effort to restore the Lake Superior Caribou.
  2. Woodland Caribou Conservation Plan. 2020.  https://www.ontario.ca/page/woodland-caribou-conservation-plan
  3. An Empty Landscape. 2021. Best of Canadian Geographic. Originally published in the September/October edition.