LOOKING BACK – THE LAST WOODLAND CARIBOU. This saga continues today.


Once abundant to the south of Maine, there seems to be little doubt that the Woodland Caribou could have been preserved. Had the early inhabitants of the region realized what was happening, sanctuaries could have been created and proper harvesting or protection techniques might have maintained the herds. There is a clear lesson to be learned from the tragedy of the caribou. Many species of plants and animals are in the same precarious position today and are disappearing equally rapidly. But we continue to strip our forests for profits and pollute our air and waters. I wonder if we have the wisdom to protect the remaining creatures and, in the process, ourselves?

Read the sad story of the Woodland Caribou below. It’s last refuge in the Gaspe is currently under threat.  Art MacKay 2022

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THE LAST WOODLAND CARIBOU
The story of the disappearance of the Woodland caribou from the Maritimes and Maine.
by Art MacKay

Reaching the deeply worn trail that wound its way between the gnarled and stunted black spruce of the sphagnum bog, the hunter slid quietly behind a dense cluster of spruce and waited with his face to the wind.

The man crouched in silence, smelling the acrid air drifting over the bog and listening to the song of the little Boreal chickadees that greeted him inquisitively. Finally, a faint clicking sound and the whooshing of air through nostrils, invaded the quiet morning. He quickly moved into shooting position and waited until a brown form appeared among the blackness of the tiny spruce. There! A fat young doe with one antler stepped warily into the open and moved stiffly down the trail. With the click of the hammer, she stopped, stared in the hunter’s direction, and sniffed the air. Satisfied she moved closer.

As the shot boomed across the bog, the doe pitched forward heavily and the clicking of feet now became a staccato drumming as the caribou herd that followed her jumped and milled rapidly about in confusion. Unable to detect any enemy by sight or smell, several of the beautiful, ungainly animals raced madly past the hunter allowing him to drop a large male with a set of the heavy, palmated, many-fingered antlers characteristic of the Woodland caribou.

Hunting scenes such as this were once common throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine. But things have changed dramatically in a 100 years. Large herds of Woodland caribou that once wandered the Maritime area and deep into Maine, were an important part of the daily economy of the natives and settlers. The white-tailed deer was virtually absent until the Twentieth century and caribou and moose supplied food, clothing, and utensils to the growing human population. Today, the herds have now all but disappeared from a vast area south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only one small group has managed to survive ln the Mount Albert area of the Gaspésian Park on the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Québec. Although these animals are presently protected, it may not be long before they will also disappear.

What could have caused the effective extermination of such an abundant and wide-spread species?

The Woodland caribou (Rangifer caribou caribou) is a close relative of the Barren ground caribou of our north, the Newfoundland caribou, and the reindeer of the Old World. But unlike the Barren ground caribou which spend much of their life in the open wind-swept tundra, the Woodland caribou is found in the southern coniferous forests where it seeks out the open muskegs and bogs. It is also distinguished from its northern cousin by its larger size and proportionately smaller but heavier appearing antlers. Unlike most species of deer, both sexes possess antlers, although those of the female are usually smaller and more delicate.

Not only is its appearance somewhat different, but many of its habits are characteristic only to the Woodland animals. While the Arctic caribou makes extensive migrations, the Woodland species does so only locally. Studies on the Gaspé herd show that they seek higher altitudes in the autumn. Travelling in groups of two to four, the females and young males move up the slope first, followed later by the adult males. They return to the lowlands in the summer where they roam with little regard for anything but food and wind; the timing of their movements probably being determined by the hordes of summer insects. At this time they seek out the bogs or “caribou barrens’’ which are their favorite feeding grounds. Here they feed on leaves, mosses and lichens and in the surrounding forests browse leisurely on the hanging shrouds of the old man’s beard, various grasses and shrubs. They apparently had a great liking for seaweeds! One naturalist stated that they would travel great distances to the coast, just for a seaweed feast.

A mixture of caution, shyness, and stupidity seems to describe the Woodland caribou. It possesses both good eye sight and hearing, but it depends almost exclusively on its keen sense of smell for the detection of enemies. This characteristic coupled with the confusion which followed the hunter’s first shot made this magnificent animal relatively easy to obtain once the herd was located. Because of the unpredictable nature of the caribou, days might be spent searching for them. But the hunt was usually over quickly once the herd had taken flight. Travelling at a steady gait for great distances, they soon left the most persistent hunter behind.

In winter the chase was even more hopeless due to the special design of the caribou’s hooves. While their size and gait create a clumsy appearance, they are well adapted for a northern life. The sharp edges and hollow centres of the hooves allow the animal to move easily through the deepest snow, the softest earth, and the slickest ice. The peculiar clicking sound which is always heard when caribou are moving is caused by tendons slipping over the bones of the feet.

We know that the Woodland caribou was not just a visitor to Eastern Canada for their remains have been found in many Indian shell-heaps in Maine, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Some of these garbage dumps have been estimated to be three or four centuries old and the presence of caribou bones shows that this species was here long before the Europeans settled North America. Written records of the early explorers and settlers refer to the caribou or “reindeer” as one of the most common animals. A French volume entitled “Description de l’Amerique” listed the caribou as a resident of Prince Edward Island in 1672.

In New Brunswick all of the roving naturalists of the nineteenth century considered the caribou to be common and frequently devoted considerable portions of their works to accounts of its occurrence, natural history, and economic importance. R.G.A. Levinge in “Echoes from the Backwoods” published in l846 indicated that Bald Mountain in Queens County, N.B., was one of the principle hunting grounds of that period. Leith Adams was one of the first to realize that the caribou was in danger. In “Field and Forest Rambles”, published in 1873, he emphatically stated his belief that the caribou would soon disappear from New Brunswick. Unfortunately, the following years showed him to be correct. A biological survey conducted in 1894 found that the caribou had vanished from the southern half of the province. The “retreat” had begun. By 1914 herds were still relatively common in the north and 231 were reported killed. However, in 1917 only eight were obtained by legal hunters and in 1918 there were none.

Occasional herds were reported in some northern counties until 1924, but by 1928, the Woodland caribou was gone forever from New Brunswick. The trend was the same in Nova Scotia and Maine where dates of extinction are set at 1900 and 1908 respectively. In an extremely short space of time the Woodland caribou’s range shrunk from hundreds of square miles to a small pocket in the Gaspé.

What was the cause of this sudden and drastic decline? Could it have been prevented?

Many answers have been suggested for the first of these questions. Some suggested that the immigration and rapid increase of the white-tailed deer created a competition for food which was resolved in favour of the white-tail. Others suggested that they had depleted their food supply or had emigrated only temporarily. However, a close examination indicates that man played the major role. Adams must have been somewhat of a prophet when he said that the reason for the decrease in caribou was “… not so much on account of the numbers slain as from the intrusion of man on its haunts, being extremely sensitive of molestation, and when fairly frightened will continue to move for days in succession, nibbling moss from the trees as it goes along”. With the increase in immigration and the consequent settlement of the land, came the clearing of large areas for agriculture and lumber, increased frequency of forest fires, and, of course, overshooting. While white-tailed deer flourished in the newly created second growth, the caribou could not stand this intrusion and they withered before the creature to whom they had supplied existence. If the small existing herd disappears, the Woodland caribou may soon join the ranks of other extinct east coast residents … the passenger pigeon, the Labrador duck, and the great auk.

There seems to be little doubt that the Woodland caribou could have been preserved. Had the early inhabitants of the region realized what was happening, sanctuaries could have been created and proper harvesting or protection techniques might have maintained the herds. There is a clear lesson to be learned from the tragedy of the caribou. Many species of plants and animals are in the same precarious position today and can disappear equally rapidly. But, we continue to strip our forests for profits and pollute our air and waters. I wonder if we have the wisdom to protect the remaining creatures and, in the process, ourselves?
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This article contains approximately 1700 words. Contents and images are ©Art MacKay 2012 

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