Lake Superior’s Iconic Caribou Population: Back From the Brink?
Posted on: March 4, 2019
A caribou on Lake Superior’s Michipicoten Island. This photo was taken by Christian Schroeder before a dramatic decline in the caribou population after wolves crossed to the island by ice in 2014.

THANK YOU FROM INFOSUPERIOR

Thank you to Gord Eason, Leo Lepiano and Christian Schroeder for information provided in this article. Gord, Leo and Christian are deeply invested in preserving the Lake Superior caribou population. All have close ties to the Wawa area and to Michipicoten Island.


CONSERVATION ACTION 2017–2018

In 2014, ice allowed wolf passage from the mainland to islands where most of Lake Superior’s caribou population is centered. The Michipicoten caribou population was decimated by the wolves; due to this alarming population drop, Michipicoten First Nation, near Wawa, Ontario, raised concerns that the Lake Superior caribou population was in imminent danger of disappearing entirely.

Ruling out the option to hunt and eliminate every wolf on Michipicoten, which was deemed too difficult (if not impossible) to accomplish, the band approached the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to take action. The band then cooperated with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to move the caribou to the Slate Islands (the Slates) and Caribou Island during winter 201718.

Ice cover sufficient to allow travel by wolves to the Slates is sporadic. Caribou Island is even more remote and has no wolf population. The idea behind relocating these caribou was, in effect, like taking out an insurance policy against elimination of the entire population. By placing caribou on these islands, it was hoped that populations would recover, eventually to the extent that some of the caribou could be moved back to Michipicoten and other locations.

Action began last winter when several caribou were moved from Michipicoten Island to the Slates and Caribou Island, where wolf predation would be less likely. In total, 15 animals were successfully moved by helicopter.

  • Michipicoten Island is located some 13 km/8 mi. offshore in the Wawa, Ontario area
  • The Slate Islands are located some 12 km/ 7 mi. offshore from Terrace Bay, Ontario
  • Caribou Island is located due south of Michipicoten Island, 72 km/44 mi. north of the Michigan mainland and 60 km/37 mi. south of the Canadian mainland (not to be confused with the much smaller Caribou Island in Thunder Bay, Ontario).

Ten caribou were moved to the Slate Islands but one animal died, leaving nine animals alive; eight of these were cows (female) and one was a bull (male). At the time of transfer, there were thought to be one to four bulls still inhabiting the Slates.

Six caribou, two of which were bulls, were transferred to Caribou Island.


ONE YEAR AFTER THIS CARIBOU CONSERVATION EFFORT, WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THESE ANIMALS?


The Slate Islands

All eight of the cows moved to the Slates were radio collared. Ongoing monitoring indicates that they are all alive. The status of the one bull caribou is not known as this animal was not radio collared. There is also uncertainty about the status of wolves because an ice bridge connected the Slates to the mainland for several weeks this winter, and it is not clear whether wolves have again crossed to this island group.

Caribou Island

The prevailing situation on Caribou Island is similar to that on the Slates. Radio collar monitoring of the four cows indicates that they are all alive. The two bulls are not collared and, therefore, their status is not known.


Caribou move
The upright ears on this male caribou provide a good sign as the animal is moved from Michipicoten Island to Caribou Island in early March, 2018. Photo: Christian Schroeder

CRITICAL NEXT STEPS


Gord, Leo and Christian are very interested in conserving Lake Superior’s caribou population. To ensure the caribou population is not eliminated and to increase population size and stability, they lay out the following steps:

  • Verify the status of bulls on both the Slates and Caribou Island; without male animals, they point out, populations will cease to exist in these areas (they will be “functionally extirpated”). It is also important to have more than one bull for genetic diversity (reducing breeding with half siblings or father).
  • Move bulls to the Slates and Caribou Island if necessary.
  • Conduct a high quality aerial survey of caribou numbers on the Canadian North Shore mainland adjacent to Lake Superior. The only source of additional Lake Superior area caribou is the mainland and such a survey will provide high confidence results for this population through actual animal sightings. (A 2015 caribou survey estimated mainland caribou numbers at over 50 animals, but confidence in this survey is low since no caribou were actually sighted, rather, results were based upon caribou “sign.”)
  • If the caribou population on the North Shore of Lake Superior is critically low (<20), transport these animals in order to preserve their genetics for future restoration .
  • Ensure Michipicoten Island is wolf-free, in order to receive caribou from the North Shore mainland, if necessary. Current estimates put the Michipicoten wolf population at 10 to 12 animals.
  • Develop a co-management structure for long-term Lake Superior caribou conservation. This plan should be a cooperative effort among citizens, First Nations, interested municipalities, interested organizations and provincial agencies.

Slate Islands Caribou, 2008
A caribou on Lake Superior’s Slate Islands, 2008. Photo: Brian McLaren

“WE NEED TO ASSERT THE PRIMACY OF CHOICE.”

– Leo Lepiano

Some people may question the importance of Lake Superior caribou conservation. Gord, Leo and Christian point out that a large part of the Canadian Lake Superior mainland is a protected area, from the tip of Thunder Cape in the west (Sleeping Giant Provincial Park), through the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, eastward to Pukaskwa Nation Park and on to Lake Superior Provincial Park (now with additions south of Montreal River Harbour). As such, they point out, there is minimal conflict with logging or other activities, unlike other areas of caribou habitat.

Additionally, they mention that Lake Superior used to be in the very core of continental caribou range, which included the south side of the lake and places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The three posit that if we cannot successfully preserve this one iconic animal population (centred on a lake shared by two very wealthy countries), there is certainly little hope of preserving other endangered plants and animals in more remote, much less affluent, parts of the world.


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

“THE PROCESS OF EXTINCTION IS THE ELIMINATION OF INDIVIDUAL POPULATIONS.”

– Gord Eason

Some might say ice cover extending to Lake Superior islands comes and goes, as do wolves, and that humans shouldn’t intervene in this situation. Gord, Leo and Christian respond to this by noting the massive human interventions, some on a landscape scale, undertaken for economic gain throughout Northwestern Ontario. Their position is that human intervention to help caribou is insignificant in comparison and every bit as valid as intervention for economic gain.


HOW ICE COVER IMPACTED THE SLATE ISLANDS AND MICHIPICOTEN ISLAND


Lake Superior Ice Cover

Just before this article was posted (February 27th), Lake Superior ice cover stood at about 85%. Ice cover has not been so extensive since 2014 when maximum Lake Superior ice cover stood at about 96% and ice cover extended from the Canadian shore to both the Slate Islands and to Michipicoten Island. As a result, three or four wolves crossed to Michipicoten Island. By 2017, the Michipicoten wolf population had increased to about 20 animals. A pair of wolves also crossed to the Slates, as has happened in each of the two previous decades.

The Slate Islands

The 2014 introduction of wolves to the Slate Islands meant that by 2017, all female caribou had been eliminated. Only a few male caribou remained, and without females, the caribou population was functionally extirpated. The crash in the caribou population also brought about a corresponding crash in the wolf population. In 201718, when action (outlined above) was taken to address the precipitous decline in Lake Superior caribou numbers, no wolves could be found on the Slates.

Michipicoten Island

On Michipicoten Island, in winter 2014, the caribou population was projected to be over 900. After wolves crossed to the island in that same year, the population was quickly reduced to only several animals, both male and female, by winter 2018. There have been no further sightings of caribou on Michipicoten Island since March 2018.


Young caribou Slates, 2008
A young caribou on the Slate Islands, 2008. Photo: Brian McLaren

THE LONGER TERM


Gord, Leo and Christian point out that while the Lake Superior caribou population was within a hair’s breadth of being entirely eliminated during the winter of 2017–18; this should by no means mark the end of efforts aimed at caribou preservation. A life ring may have been thrown to this population but this is merely a stop-gap measure. All three maintain that vigilance and ongoing action are needed to prevent extirpation, even while concurrently developing a long-term plan and broader cooperation. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, all three maintain that success is possible.


LINKS:

PREVIOUS INFOSUPERIOR CARIBOU ARTICLES


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