WHAT HAPPENED TO QUEBECÕS CARIBOU?
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.
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.