“Skylift 3” – Michipicoten Bull Bags Starring Role in Caribou Sequel
Posted on: April 3, 2018
Caribou move
Ears up provide a good sign as a male caribou is moved from Lake Superior’s Michipicoten Island to Caribou Island in early March. Photo: Christian Schroeder


A large, bull caribou strutted away, apparently with no  ill-affects, after a helicopter lift due south from Michipicoten Island to Caribou Island, just north of the Canada – USA border on Lake Superior. The move was carried out in early March.  The size and potential of this animal was noticed immediately by the crew organizing the move. He’ll also play a leading role on Caribou Island. An earlier lift of five caribou from Michipicoten to Caribou Island was carried out successfully in February but included only one male. According to Dr. Serge Couturier, a caribou expert from Quebec who lead the effort, this second move of one male only, was completed to increase genetic diversity.

Listen to a Soundcloud Podcast of the  Conversation with Dr. Couturier.

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Seeking Advice on the Future of Caribou in the Lake Superior Coast Range.

Dr. Couturier pointed out that flights over Michipicoten in March indicated a very low caribou population; only five were sighted. Populations only a few years earlier were estimated to be over 650 until ice conditions in 2014 allowed wolves to cross to the island. Representatives of Michipicoten First Nation, which has been a primary proponent for caribou relocation, maintain that simply hunting the wolves is not a viable solution. They say the island is simply too large and that without complete elimination of the wolves, every last caribou on Michpicoten is doomed.  In February communication, the band contended that the Michipicoten caribou population would probably be eliminated within two months.

The most recent move involved capture of a huge male at Davieaux Island, just off the south shore of Michipicoten. The animal was moved to Caribou Island, bringing the total number of animals on Caribou Island to 6 animals, 4 females and two male. Dr. Couturier said that habitat on Caribou Island was very suitable and that caribou had lived on the island in earlier times. Dr. Couturier stressed that the various caribou interventions this winter were only the first steps in a longer process. He said that once a strong population had been established on Caribou Island and the Slate Islands, (caribou were also moved from Michipicoten to the Slate Islands earlier in the winter), animals could be brought back to Michipicoten. He said the move of 6 animals to Caribou Island was like an insurance policy on the earlier move to the Slates.

Over Lake Superior
Over Lake Superior during the helicopter operation to transfer a male caribou from Michipicoten Island to Caribou Island. Photo: Christian Schroeder


At a February 21st presentation about caribou in Terrace Bay, local residents said that ice cover from the mainland to the Slates was rare. Terrace Bay Mayor Jody Davis said that such ice cover had occurred only a couple of times over several decades. He also voiced strong appreciation on behalf of the Town of Terrace Bay for the efforts of Michipicoten First Nation in working to conserve Lake Superior caribou populations.

NOAA – Animated View of Historic Ice Cover

Dr. Couturier said that when the large male was moved to Caribou Island in March, the animals that had been moved there earlier were observed “running happily” along the shore. He said the crew handling the move deliberately did not do any more flying over Caribou Island in order that the animals would not be further stressed or disturbed.

Restraining the caribou.
The large male caribou from Michipicoten Island was placed in a restraint during the helicopter ride to Caribou island. The animal was not sedated but rather blindfolded for calming. The animal weighed between 113 kg and 122 kg./250 and 270 pounds. Photo: Christian Schroeder



A net gun was used to capture the large, male caribou. Dr. Couturier said that space was needed for proper operation of the net gun and was extremely limited on Davieaux Island. In fact, after completing hundreds of such caribou captures over the years, he said the capture at Davieaux was one the most difficult of his career. He said it was only on the third shot that the animal was captured. He reported that after netting was completed, the net was removed, leg restraints put in place, and a mask and earplugs used to calm the animal. The animal was then put in a “caribou bag.” He said the animal was so large that 4 persons were needed to carry the caribou onto the helicopter. The flight lasted no more than 15 minutes and the animal was not sedated. In total, from capture to release, the operation took only about 45 minutes. Once restraints, mask and earplugs were removed, the animal ran away with no apparent harm.

Dr. Couturier said there was no longer a coastal caribou population on Superior and that for this very reason the island population at Michipicoten assumed increased importance.  He said that even though the caribou population on Michipicoten was estimated to have been in excess of 600 animals prior to the introduction of four wolves in 2014, the wolf population quickly grew to about 20 wolves, causing a complete crash in the caribou population in just 4 years. He said his personal opinion was that the need for action was urgent.

Dr. Couturier said that once small populations were well established on both the Slates and Caribou Island, animals could then be moved back to Michipicoten and possibly even the mainland, where he pointed out that they were not confined as on islands and would have plenty of room to practice evasion tactics against wolves. He said it was entirely reasonable to think that the Lake Superior caribou population could be restored.

Earlier on Infosuperior:

Feb. 16, 2018 – Caribou, The Sequel: – “Skylift 2”, Features Superior’s Most Remote Island

Dec. 17, 2017 – Caribou: Airlift From the Brink!

Nov. 30, 2017 – Caribou, Ice and Wolves – Death Spiral?


Teeth marks on the neck of the caribou.
The well-healed teeth marks on the neck of the bull moose moved from Michipicoten Island to Caribou Island show the animal had been in the mouth of a wolf at least once before. Photo: Christian Schroeder


Asked whether a sound plan was needed for management of the Lake Superior caribou population, Dr. Couturier replied that, due to their near elimination around Lake Superior, it was too late for a management plan. He said that effort needed to be put towards a recovery plan. He said that, unlike elsewhere, in the Lake Superior case economic factors were not the primary driver for population crash. He said that the very large parks and conservation areas along Superior’s Canadian shore meant that problems associated with logging were not as prevalent. Dr. Couturier went on to say that once recovery was in hand, the caribou population around Superior could be managed and maintained.

caribou release
The bull caribou moved from Michipicoten Island to Caribou Island bounds for freedom upon release, early March, 2018. Christian Schroeder Photo


Dr. Couturier was asked about the point made by some people that transportation of Michipicoten caribou to various Lake Superior islands is a totally unreasonable intervention. He replied that very few things remain in a completely natural state, untouched by the influence of man, whether large block forest cutting or fish stocking of lakes. He went on to say that while ice comes and goes, under current predictions, there would be less ice in future, not more, thereby increasing the measure of safety for caribou on Superior’s islands. He said that observations from the helicopter put the Michipicoten caribou population at just  a handful of animals, perhaps five, along with several wolves. He said the position of anyone who favoured Mother Nature taking its course and hoping a few caribou would survive was untenable; a recipe for extirpation. He said he disagreed with standing by and watching while numbers declined so drastically.

Caribou Island Lighthouse
The lighthouse on Caribou Island is the most remote in North America, some 60 km./37 mi. south of  the Canadian mainland and 71 km./44 mi. north of the US mainland. Photo: Christian Schroeder


Dr. Couturier pointed out that Michipicoten First Nation, along with several residents of the Wawa area, pressed for action, gained the cooperation of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and cooperatively took action. He said he respected this action. It should be noted also, that at the February 21st caribou presentation in Terrace Bay mentioned above, town councillor Bert Johnson reported that he had been in Toronto recently and had met the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. He said he personally thanked the Minister for the assistance of MNRF in cooperating to address the Lake Superior caribou situation. Councillor Johnson noted that the minister said he seldom receives thanks and was heartened to know that the Town of Terrace Bay appreciated the efforts of MNRF.

Previously released caribou
Nothing says success like previously-released animals trotting along the beach on Caribou Island. Photo: Christian Schroeder


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