ON MARCH 28, the Ontario government held a workshop on the future of the Lake Superior caribou. There are likely fewer than 20 caribou left on the North Shore, about 15 on the Slate Islands, and no more than 10 on Caribou Island. During the meeting, attendees raised some concerns over conflicts between caribou management and other uses of the mainland north of Lake Superior.
Three main concerns were that protecting caribou on the mainland would harm forestry, reduce moose harvest, and restrict access to the land.
FORESTRY AND CARIBOU CORRIDORS
The best way to keep caribou in the area over the long term is to connect the isolated Lake Superior range to the continuous distribution of caribou to the north. This will allow movement between these areas to augment the populations and provide genetic diversity. Recent genetic work has confirmed that there are still animals dispersing between the ranges, even with so few caribou left along Lake Superior.
Concern was expressed that provincial policy requires permanent forest corridors connecting the caribou ranges. Such permanent deferrals decrease the total allowable harvest in a forest management unit by reducing the area that can be harvested.
This problem of permanently deferred corridors could be solved simply by having temporary corridors. These corridors would change location as the habitat changes and would not reduce the harvest area over time.
There are larger problems with forestry in the region. While there is no shortage of wood to cut around Lake Superior, almost all of the harvest demand is for mature conifer. Hardwoods and mixed-woods are often left unharvested. Coupled with decades of inadequate conifer regeneration, the forest is straying further and further from the amount of mature conifer in the original forest.
Both the forest industry and caribou require mature conifer. As the amount of mature conifer declines, all of the remaining mature conifer stands and therefore all of the caribou habitat is on the cutting block.
Solving this problem would benefit the economy of the region, as well as the caribou. This is a long-term effort and requires restoring the mature conifer component of the original forest and evening the supply out. This would eventually provide a steady and higher supply of mature conifer to mills and avoid the boom-bust cycle in forestry. It would also provide a steady and higher amount of caribou habitat.
In the short term it will be necessary to keep mature conifer habitat in the rugged areas along the Lake Superior shore where the last few of the caribou still persist. But that leaves most of the conifer, which is back from the lake, to be managed for wood supply.
We believe that good forest management for caribou is also good forest management for the conifer-based forest industry. Losing caribou along the Lake Superior shore, where it is technically feasible to keep them, means we have chosen not to manage our forests for ecological sustainability. It also means we are willing to disregard our endangered species legislation. Such a choice also means we are not managing the forest for economic sustainability.
The Lake Superior caribou are not a threat to the forest industry in the region, rather managing for caribou should benefit the forest industry. Scapegoating caribou is to fail to clearly see the problems we are facing in making forestry sustainable.
MOOSE AND PREDATORS
Changes in the regions forests have led to an increase in moose populations over the last century. The first record of a moose encountered in the Chapleau area is from 1898, and where moose were present north of Superior, their densities would have been very low. Woodland caribou, on the other hand, extended as far south as Manitoulin Island and the French River in the late 19th century.
By increasing moose in the region in recent times, we’ve increased the amount of prey available to predators like wolves and bears. The increase in wolf populations is further exacerbated by all of the linear features on the landscape — railways, roads, hydro lines, etc. — all of which make it easier for wolves to move rapidly through the landscape and increase their chances of encountering prey. The end result is that the smaller and less productive caribou cannot maintain themselves against this increased predation, and are eventually extirpated. There are no longer any caribou around the Hudson’s Bay post on the Michipicoten.
Studies have shown that predator numbers can be brought down by reducing alternate prey — such as moose — particularly when coupled with predator management that reduces wolf numbers. This approach is being used in other parts of Canada to try to conserve caribou.
It appears that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry may be employing this management technique in the wildlife management units north of Lake Superior. However, their approach has been ineffective. The wildlife management units are very large, and only small portions have any caribou. Attempting to bring down the moose densities across these large areas does nothing for caribou, but certainly infuriates hunters. Meanwhile, the provincial government is not doing enough to keep caribou in their last refuges along the north shore of Lake Superior.
We suggest that Wildlife Management Unit 21A be subdivided so that the narrower area along the shore of Lake Superior where caribou exist can be managed separately. Increased moose hunting could be coupled with predator management in this smaller unit, resulting in actual benefits for caribou. The majority of WMU 21A could then be returned to being managed for moose and increased benefits for hunters.
Moose are important for food, recreation, economic benefits and cultural practices. These benefits will most certainly not disappear from the region as a result of prudent caribou conservation efforts. However, moose are under threat across the province from unregulated hunting, as well as climate change. Moose start to go into thermal stress at temperatures of about 14 C. Warmer summers with increased periods of extreme heat are likely to result in a decline of moose over the coming decades. Caribou do not show signs of thermal stress until 35 C. Island populations could be managed with controlled First Nations hunts, and caribou could replace declining moose numbers on the mainland.
We also heard it suggested that the reduction in moose numbers is a violation of Treaty rights. When the treaties were signed, moose were not abundant in the area, whereas woodland caribou were the main cervid. On the west coast of Canada, First Nations have threatened to sue the government over the extirpation of caribou because their absence on the landscape means they can no longer be hunted by either current or future generations. So, it is argued, that both conservation efforts for caribou or a lack of conservation efforts are violations of treaty and or Aboriginal rights.
We don’t think moose and caribou are an either-or proposition. There is room for both moose and caribou north of Lake Superior. It is also seems to be the wise thing to do.
Finally, we heard concerns that closing roads and trails for caribou seriously reduced access for activities like fishing, hunting, trapping, and berry picking. Restricting forest access for caribou conservation is based on the idea that having fewer linear features, such as roads, on the landscape makes it easier for caribou to avoid wolves.
While some roads may need to be closed in areas where there are known to be caribou, widespread road closures are not necessary. There may also be good reasons to keep access, particularly where we would benefit from having trappers removing wolves.
This column was co-authored by Gord Eason, Brian McLaren, Christian Schroeder, Leo Lepiano, Serge Couturier, Marcel Pellegrini and Aaron Bumstead.
(Originally published April 29, 2019)