The Last of the Atlantic Caribou

The Very Last of the Atlantic Caribou

Extreme Conservation May be Necessary to Save a Dying Herd

I found her on my third day, a speck of honey and cream lost in the shimmering savannas atop Mont Albert, Quebec. Through my camera lens I saw a robust and healthy coat, a head without antlers but with the unmistakable contours of the Woodland caribou, her face calm and curious in the light of the afternoon, her eyes locked with mine across splendid alpine. She began a long and patient approach, and I sank to my knees, relieved and in suspense.

“Thank god,” I said aloud to no one at all.

There was a time when the Atlantic caribou dominated much of eastern Canada south of the St Lawrence River, spanning the entirety of the Maritime provinces and ranging as far west as Quebec City. Now, after centuries of unrepentant forestry and the radical transformation of their historic habitat, these iconically Canadian creatures are confined to a single refuge in all the world – the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park, Quebec.

They are unlike other woodland caribou, sporting shorter antlers on average so as to move more freely through the defunct forests of their ancestral home, and adapting to smaller landscapes with shortened seasonal migrations. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) called this herd an “irreplaceable unit of [Canadian] biodiversity,” a fact made especially sad by their extinction-in-motion.

They disappeared from Prince Edward Island in 1765, from Nova Scotia in 1921 and from New Brunswick in 1927, forced steadily north and east by the clearing of mature forests, and the invasion of other species altogether – coyotes and white-tailed deer – better suited to the human landscape. From Quebec City as recently as 1929 they retreated to the valleys of the Gaspésie Peninsula by the 1950s. At that time their population had plummeted to 2,000 individuals, further decreasing to 200 by the 1990s.

When I found my first Atlantic caribou atop Mont Jacques-Cartier in 2017 only 90 individuals remained, and by the time I met the lone female atop Mont Albert in the pandemic summer of 2020, after 60 kilometres and seven peaks of search, there were perhaps 70 Atlantic caribou left in all the world, according to Quebec’s Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs. That estimate has since dropped below 40.

A female Atlantic caribou atop Mont Albert Gaspesie. Photo by Zack Metcalfe

“When working in conservation ecology you’re always facing the possibility of having populations of interest [go extinct],” said professor Martin-Hugues St-Laurent of the Université du Québec à Rimouski, who has dedicated considerable research and advocacy to this herd since 2008.

“Yes, part of me is prepared for [extinction].”

Hunting these caribou has been illegal since 1949, and neither logging nor mining have been permitted in Gaspésie National Park since 1977, but on the Gaspésie peninsula beyond the park, rampant logging has replaced mature forests with young regrowth and an excess of logging roads. As Martin-Hugues explains it, this disturbed landscape is of little use to caribou, but is ideal for moose and deer (their primary competitors) and for coyotes and black bears (their primary predators).

These competing species have become so populous outside the park that they’ve begun to spill in. Coyotes and bears are now combing the alpine breeding grounds of the Atlantic caribou killing calves, preventing this critically endangered population from recruiting new members, while at the same time its older females and males reach the end of natural lifespans. This, is ecology out of balance.

Predator controls are already in place throughout the park, tempering the influx of coyotes and bears, and provincial forestry is being reimagined for the sake of caribou. Even if logging were to end immediately (which it has not), and logging roads were to be thoroughly overplanted, Martin Hugues said it would take at least 25 years for forests surrounding Gaspésie National Park to mature sufficiently, to support caribou and not their competitors. And preserving this herd for a quarter century is no small task.

To save the Atlantic caribou of Gaspésie, said Martin-Hugue, “extreme conservation” may be necessary. Newborn calves and their mothers could be moved into outdoor enclosures for those parts of the year when they’re most vulnerable to predators, outdoor enclosures which are presently under construction, and new individuals could be introduced to the herd altogether from elsewhere in Canada, diluting the genetic uniqueness of the Gaspésie caribou, but improving the herd’s reproductive success. Such measures and others, he said, are increasingly on his mind.

“[Are these measures] worse than losing the entire population?” he asked. “From my perspective, the answer is no.”

The solitary caribou who spied me over hundreds of metres atop Mont Albert approached until she was within a dozen paces, considering me through eyes both wide and wise as we engaged in unspoken dialogue. After a long while she looked over her mountainous abode with melancholy, then walked on.

I watched her melt into the savanna, moving patiently to an uncertain future, and I knew that without action of the sort that rarely comes from government, I would never see her kind again. My mind goes to her this time of year, as I line out my summer expeditions and see that Gaspésie has not made the list. Someday soon, the Chic Choc Mountains might no longer be the refuge of the Atlantic caribou. Someday, they might just be mountains.

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Eastern Perspectives

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes.