Standing 1.2 metres tall at the shoulder and weighing 210 kilograms, woodland caribou are among the more formidable members of our Canadian wildlife. They’re also hardy, being the only large mammal able to eat lichen as a primary food source. Caribou are unique among members of the deer family in that both sexes grow antlers. Shown above is a woodland caribou photographed in Alaska.

Photo by Dean Biggins (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

In the province of Nova Scotia there are no fewer than 42 lakes, islands, marshes, ponds, brooks and rivers named after the woodland caribou — a species once so populous in Atlantic Canada they were a force of nature. Nowadays, no more than 140 remain in the southeastern corner of the country, none of which are in Nova Scotia.

Woodland caribou can be found all throughout Canada’s north, but the populations can be differentiated geographically. We divide this iconic species into six separate populations, five of which still exist today. The 140 individuals mentioned above are all that are left of the Atlantic Caribou population, which once spanned the entirety of the Maritimes and beyond.

With the boisterous arrival of Europeans to Eastern Canada, the Atlantic caribou population began a slow but steady retreat northward, disappearing from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the last century and from Prince Edward Island as early as 1874. The remains of this once mighty population are now confined to the northern shore of the Gaspé Peninsula, clinging to life in the mountainous Gaspésie National Park. They constitute the only population of caribou south of the St Lawrence River.

In the 1950s, the national park contained as many as 750 caribou, but this number plummeted to 200 by the 1980s. The population estimate of 140 comes from a document published in 2006, but more recent estimates are lower still. The surviving population, genetically distinct from any other across Canada, continues to decline despite being protected from the hunting and habitat loss, which destroyed the Atlantic Caribou. To lose them means losing something that cannot be replaced, not truly.

The odds are very much against these remaining Atlantic Caribou. Their fight for survival has been a long one and it could end on the mountains of Gaspésie National Park, but I choose to believe we’ll see fit to safeguard this animal, if only for the sake of our gratitude toward it. For generations past, both before and after European settlement, the caribou granted early Canadians a way of life with their meat and their fur that we would be hard pressed to repay in full.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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