WHAT HAP­PENED TO QUEBECÕS CARI­BOU?

Outdoor Life - - THE FINAL SEASON - —A.M.

CARI­BOU ARE AMONG NORTH Amer­ica’s most cycli­cal biggame species. Us­ing tree-scar ev­i­dence, re­searchers say that pop­u­la­tions of Que­bec cari­bou have yo-yoed widely over the last 200 years, re­spond­ing to weather and preda­tor num­bers.

That cari­bou are fickle crea­tures is about all that stake­hold­ers can agree on. The en­gines of pop­u­la­tion dy­nam­ics? De­pends on who you ask. And I asked a dozen peo­ple, in­clud­ing min­is­ters with Que­bec’s Min­istry of Forestry, Wildlife, and Parks, who de­clined to com­ment.

In gen­eral, govern­ment of­fi­cials at­tribute the de­cline to a bit of every­thing, in­clud­ing hunting, changes in veg­e­ta­tion, and cli­mate change, which has likely lim­ited the habi­tat on the tip of the Un­gava Penin­sula where cari­bou go to calve. Tra­di­tion­ally, this area has been de­void of black­flies and wolves dur­ing calv­ing sea­son. But changes in cli­mate pat­terns have re­duced the size and pro­duc­tiv­ity of ver­min-free calv­ing grounds.

A 2016 re­port is­sued by Que­bec’s pro­vin­cial depart­ment of parks and wildlife states: “Re­cent documentary anal­y­sis has clearly re­vealed that the main threats to the long-term sur­vival of mi­gra­tory cari­bou pop­u­la­tions are over­ex­ploita­tion through hunting and poach­ing, the ex­pan­sion of oc­cu­pa­tion of the ter­ri­tory and the at­ten­dant in­dus­trial ac­tiv­i­ties, as well as cli­mate change.”

The re­port de­tails pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates over the past 15 years, not­ing that the Leaf River herd swelled to 430,000 in 2011, then de­clined to 332,000 in 2015 and to 199,000 in 2016.

Some sug­gested that while changes in mi­gra­tion tim­ing may not have af­fected the over­all pop­u­la­tion of the Leaf River herd, it has crip­pled the outfitters who have re­lied on a pre­dictable pat­tern. And as the outfitters have gone out of busi­ness, First Na­tions are pre­par­ing to be­come more pow­er­ful stake­hold­ers in herd man­age­ment de­ci­sions.

Oth­ers ques­tion the pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates them­selves. The Que­bec Outfitters As­so­ci­a­tion, which of course has a large mone­tary stake in the out­come of the hunt, made the fol­low­ing state­ment in a news re­lease: “What hap­pened to the hun­dreds of thousands of cari­bou that dis­ap­peared since 2011, no­tably 100,000 dur­ing the past two years? How does one ex­plain that nei­ther guides, nor hun­ters, nor outfitters them­selves have dis­cov­ered any hides or car­casses dur­ing the months they op­er­ated on the land and dur­ing the hun­dreds of hours over­fly­ing the North­ern Que­bec ter­ri­tory? Given the fact that the na­tive com­mu­ni­ties in Que­bec and Labrador ap­par­ently have not had their cari­bou har­vest quo­tas de­creased by govern­ment clo­sures, some are ques­tion­ing whether the sport-hunting ban is as much po­lit­i­cal as it is bi­o­log­i­cal.”

The govern­ment’s boil­er­plate state­ment, plus its de­ci­sion to ban the sporthunt, has opened the door for plenty of other the­o­ries.

“We didn’t see tag cut­backs un­til they started build­ing hy­dro dams in cari­bou win­ter habi­tat,” says On­tario hunter Doug Fraser.

“They’re killing too many cows in the win­ter,” says na­tive Que­be­cer Gordy Buckle. “The cari­bou mi­grate down where there are roads and places where snow­mo­biles can go, and they have dropped their antlers by then, so you can’t tell what’s a bull and what’s a cow. A cari­bou down there is worth $500, in hide and fresh meat, and here’s the thing: Ev­ery Que­bec res­i­dent can fill tags for all the peo­ple in their house­hold. So you have peo­ple killing 20 to 25 cari­bou.”

For my part, I imag­ine the rea­sons for the de­cline are equal parts cli­mate change, pres­sure from preda­tors (both two- and four-legged), and habi­tat al­ter­ation. With mi­gra­tory an­i­mals, any bot­tle­neck along their mi­gra­tion spells trou­ble.

Do I think stop­ping sport hunting will re­vive the herd? No. Sport hun­ters were is­sued only 1,366 Leaf River cari­bou tags last sea­son. But I un­der­stand the de­sire to limit mor­tal­ity un­til wildlife man­agers fig­ure out the real causes of the de­clines. I’m confident sev­eral mil­lion acres of pris­tine sub­arc­tic habi­tat will sus­tain the cari­bou, as long as they have a chance to ac­cess it.

of Hud­son Bay. At its height, in 2011, this herd num­bered about 430,000 an­i­mals. The Ge­orge River herd has a shorter mi­gra­tion, mov­ing along the Que­bec–labrador bor­der. Its size has dropped from an es­ti­mated 800,000 an­i­mals in 1985 to just 5,000 cari­bou to­day. Hunting was stopped in 2012, but the pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ued to de­cline any­way, from 27,000 in 2012 to 14,200 in 2014 . The Ge­orge River cari­bou is now con­sid­ered an en­dan­gered species in Canada. The Leaf River herd de­clined too, though not nearly as pre­cip­i­tously as the Ge­orge River herd. But out of an abun­dance of cau­tion—in an ef­fort to avoid the ter­mi­nal plunge of the Ge­orge—in 2014, the prov­ince cut tag quo­tas to outfitters. A few mar­ginal op­er­a­tions faded away, but the ex­pec­ta­tion was that after a few down years, the herd would re­bound. Only it didn’t, which is why the prov­ince made the stun­ning de­ci­sion last year to stop sport-hunting for the Leaf River herd. As the Pipe Smokers ar­rived at Char­lie Lake, we knew only that we had six days to hunt, and that bi­ol­o­gists es­ti­mated the herd mov­ing to­ward us was less than half the num­ber of just six years ear­lier. And we had also heard that, as in the pre­vi­ous few years, the mi­gra­tion was late and patchy. Fly-in cari­bou camps are built on the ex­pec­ta­tion of abun­dance. They’re al­most al­ways on lakes, and most fea­ture a fleet of run­about boats to in­ter­cept cari­bou fil­ing along far shores. In Que­bec, at least, cari­bou guides rarely hike or know much about the coun­try be­yond sight of camp. They don’t have to. The cari­bou have al­ways come to them. When we asked Buckle where we might ex­pect to see the lead­ing edge of an in­com­ing herd, he pointed north, then west, then swept his hands around the lake. “Nah­biddy knows,” he said. His sug­ges­tion: Just wait. They’ll come. Mean­while, the clock ticked, and Hitchins, Chuckel, and I drove around in the boat, glass­ing shore­lines, for four straight days. We broke the monotony by cast­ing to brawl­ing, kype-jawed brook trout in spawn­ing colors of tan­ger­ine and emer­ald. But our eyes were ever search­ing for mouse­c­ol­ored un­gu­lates traips­ing across the tun­dra. Chuckel saw him first, a lone bull brows­ing wil­lows in a trib­u­tary of Char­lie Lake. The three of us grabbed our bows. I looked at my Sako ri­fle twice be­fore reach­ing for it, along with my Mathews, and join­ing the stalk. We got within 80 yards be­fore I sent Chuckel ahead. If the bull worked around him, hope­fully he’d head my way. Hitchins and I held back. Chuckel sneaked into place, nocked an ar­row, and was about to draw when the bull sim­ply stepped into the lake and swam out of bow range. It was the only cari­bou we had seen in four days. I looked at my Sako again. When the bull emerged from the lake on the other side of the bay, I folded him, hop­ing like hell I hadn’t just killed the last bull in Que­bec. Back at camp, I was greeted by the Joyce clan as a con­quer­ing hero. Hold­ing beers, they in­spected

ev­ery inch of my bull, as if it were a dragon that had fallen from the sky. That night, the wind blew, Well­man con­jured cari­bou, and the Pipe Smokers packed for a long hike the next day.

BOOT LEATHER

We had Buckle drop us off at the far end of the lake, in the di­rec­tion we thought cari­bou might come from. As we climbed out of his boat and checked our gear, Buckle kept shak­ing his head. He had never seen hun­ters pre­pare to walk as long or as far as we in­tended to. “The land is scarce,” he told us as we climbed a rocky ridge and left sight of Char­lie Lake. He wasn’t kid­ding. We hiked a cou­ple of miles, stop­ping to glass from the in­nu­mer­able high points. The Bar­rens are a fea­ture­less tum­ble of house-size boul­ders, blue­berry fens, ridges that lead nowhere, and wa­ter of ev­ery type and size, from fin­ger lakes to pot­holes. And wind. It may not have brought us cari­bou, but the wind took our hats, the words from our mouths, and the fire from the matches we struck to light our pipes. Dur­ing one wind-whipped pipe-light­ing ses­sion, I set up my spot­ting scope and scoured the ter­rain. I was about to pro­nounce the land empty when some­thing caught my eye. It was khaki-col­ored and round. Then it moved. It was a cari­bou, nearly 2 miles to the north. I could just make out antlers in my quiv­er­ing scope. Pipes were quenched, packs shoul­dered, and we cov­ered ground. Some­how, we found that bull, and after a cou­ple of blown stalks, Hitchins sent an ar­row through his rib cage. We smoked our pipes in thanks (and to re­pel black­flies), then packed our gear and the boned meat from that cari­bou 6 hard miles back to Char­lie Lake, ar­riv­ing at camp around mid­night. In the morn­ing, nurs­ing tired feet and bruised shoul­ders, we looked with fresh eyes at the hunter­scrawled graf­fiti in our bunkhouse. It was more or less chrono­log­i­cal, start­ing with this from 2006: “Got to camp 3 p.m. First good bull 5:30. Too windy to fish.” Then 2009: “The Fa­ther-daugh­ter Team: 4 great bulls, 12 ptarmi­gan, 1 bear, 25 lake trout. One hell of a time!” And 2012: “Cari­bou in the wa­ter as far as the eye can see.” On the back of the door, a hunter from 2013 had scrib­bled: “Char­lie Lake: Thousands on the move. Mass­ing of great bulls. Kill quickly.” But a hunter from ear­lier in 2017 had edited the post, scrawl­ing, “Very few cari­bou,” above Char­lie Lake, and then declar­ing “NO!” in block let­ters above each of those three pro­nounce­ments. It was hard not to draw the same con­clu­sions. How could one of the con­ti­nent’s great sport hunts sput­ter to a stop? Is the herd re­ally in trou­ble, or is the mi­gra­tion sim­ply chang­ing its pace and pat­tern? And what’s the fate of the cari­bou camps sprin­kled across Que­bec’s Bar­rens? As we waited for the Ot­ter to pick us up from Char­lie Lake and drop the sea­son’s fi­nal crew of fresh hun­ters off, I asked Well­man what would hap­pen to his camp when the cari­bou sea­son ended in a week. “We’ll take what we can haul out in a plane, but the boats, gen­er­a­tor, freez­ers, all that—it stays here. Maybe some­body re­opens this camp some­day, but why? Who would put that kind of time and money into this? No­body’s com­ing.” On my lay­over in Mon­treal, as I headed home, I checked the prov­ince’s mi­gra­tion tracker, a web­site that re­ports the lo­ca­tions of Gps-col­lared cari­bou. The plots on the map showed tens of thousands of cari­bou above the Leaf River, still 100 miles from the Char­lie Lake Camp. The weather fore­cast was call­ing for a strong wind from the north.

Hefty, hard-fight­ing brook trout are a sta­ple of cari­bou camp.

The Joyce crew were able to fill their tags after char­ter­ing a heli­copter to find the herd.

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