Anyone familiar with the plight of woodland caribou on Michipicoten Island will know that the animals have been threatened to the point that their future is very much in doubt. While there have been opportunities to preserve the herd in its place, the province chose to pursue another solution that has those closest to the situation wondering whether the caribou are the real priority. In addition to that, the struggle to protect the animals is showing how federal policy administered, and interpreted by the provinces can lead to results that aren’t easily anticipated.
Caribou were historic inhabitants of Michipicoten Island, but the herd was wiped out in the 19th century. In 1981, after a single animal found its way to the island, the province moved more animals from the Slate Islands to try to re-establish a herd. The project was such a success that by 2011 there were roughly 700 caribou on the island. Then came the deep freeze in the winter of 2014.
That particularly cold winter created an ice bridge from the mainland which allowed 4 wolves to cross over and begin to prey on the island’s caribou which were easy pickings. At the time, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry captured the wolves and fitted them with radio collars for the purpose of studying them. Caribou advocates, including the Michipicoten First Nation, say that any information the study was going to provide was already available and that the province should have known the wolves were going to wipe the herd out.
That is exactly what is happening. With a captive food source, the wolf population grew while the caribou population suffered great losses. While the Michipicoten First Nation have been involved in the process all along, they say their solutions have held no sway with the province, despite providing scenarios that would have saved far more animals.
One of those would have seen some of the wolves removed and sent to Michigan where they are looking to introduce the predators to Isle Royale on Lake Superior’s southern coast for moose control. That would have saved wolves, but it appears the scenario was an administrative nightmare. Instead, the province recently moved some caribou to the Slate Islands to join a remnant herd of males. It is hoped the introduction of these animals will allow the Slate Islands herd to grow, but the choice is really one of hope over one of certainty.
For the remaining animals on Michipicoten Island, the province’s solution is a death sentence. The wolves will quickly prey on the caribou and then starve since there is no other animal base to sustain them. This easily leads one to wonder what the priority was. Was it the woodland caribou who are listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), or was it the wolves, which will predictably be lost as this plays out?
Ultimately the province is abandoning the work they undertook to create the Michipicoten herd back in the 80s. At the same time, the federal government’s designation of the species as one that is at risk seems to be holding no sway in the decision. This will lead to questions about the effectiveness of SARA and the ability of the federal government to coordinate with the provinces to protect vulnerable species. In the meantime, I continue to work with advocates who are calling on both levels of government to do the right thing and save the remaining caribou on Michipicoten Island. But time is quickly running out for that option