Op-ed | The Future of the Lake Superior Caribou

This op-ed was authored by the following individuals: Gord Eason, Dr. Brian McLaren, Dr. Serge Couturier, Dr. Christian Schroeder, Marcel Pellegrini, Aaron Bumstead, and Leo Lepiano.

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. On March 28th, the Province of Ontario held a workshop on the future of the Lake Superior caribou. During the meeting, attendees raised some concerns over conflicts between caribou management and other uses of the mainland north of Lake Superior.

The three main concerns were that protecting caribou on the mainland would harm forestry, reduce moose harvest, and restrict access to the land. The following is our response to these concerns.

Caribou and Forestry

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. Movement between these areas would 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.

Caribou ranges in Ontario. – Photo from MNRF State of the Woodland Caribou Resource Report 2014

Concern was expressed that provincial policy requires permanent forest corridors connecting the caribou ranges, which decreases the total allowable harvest in a forest management unit. 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.

But 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, and those stands are heavily targeted. Hardwoods and mixed woods are often left unharvested. Coupled with decades of inadequate conifer regeneration, the forest is moving further and further from the amount of mature conifer that was present in the pre-industrial 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.

Restoring the mature conifer component of the original forest is a long-term effort, but it would eventually provide a steadier and higher supply of mature conifer to mills and avoid a boom-bust cycle. It would also provide a significant and consistent 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.

The Importance of Moose

Moose are important for food, recreation, economic benefits and cultural practices. These benefits will not disappear from the region as a result of prudent caribou conservation efforts. However, moose are under threat from unregulated hunting, as well as climate change. Moose start to go into thermal stress at temperatures of about 14C. Warmer summers with increased periods of extreme heat are likely to result in a significant decline of moose over the coming decades, should we fail to avoid the worst of climate change. In that case woodland caribou offer potential benefits. Caribou do not show signs of thermal stress until 35C. Island populations could be managed with controlled First Nation hunts, and caribou could replace declining moose numbers on the mainland.

We also heard it suggested that the reduction in moose numbers as a caribou conservation tactic is a violation of Treaty rights. When the treaties were signed, moose were not abundant in the area, if present at all, whereas woodland caribou were the main cervid. Elsewhere in 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.

Predator-Prey Dynamics

Changes in the regions forests have led to an increase in moose populations over the last century. The earliest 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.

This image was taken at the Hudson’s Bay post on the Michipicoten River near Wawa in the late 19th century. It is a fascinating photo for many reasons, but note the caribou antlers above the door on the building to the right. – Photo from https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca found by Johanna Rowe of Wawa

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, which make it easier for wolves to move far distances, increasing their chances of encountering prey. Caribou, which are smaller and less productive than moose, cannot maintain themselves against this increased predation, and are eventually extirpated.

Land Access

Restricting forest access for caribou conservation is based on the idea that the fewer linear features on the landscape, the more difficult it is for wolves to find prey. We heard concerns that closing roads and trails for caribou conservation seriously reduced access for activities like fishing, hunting, trapping, and berry picking.

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.

Conclusion We believe that managing caribou well results in good land management. 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. By not maintaining and regenerating caribou habitat, we are not maintaining and regenerating our wood supply either. By shying away from difficult conversations about forest access, unregulated moose hunting, and climate change, we are doing a further disservice to all of us, including those yet to be born


Ministry of Natural Resources & Forestry (MNRF). 2014. State of the Woodland Caribou Resource Report. Species at
Risk Branch, Thunder Bay, Ontario. + 156 pp.

Infosuperior provides an open source for dialogue. The views expressed in submitted essays and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of Infosuperior.

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