On 2018/01/13, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (the “Ministry”) began executing what represents one part of prong “A” of our proposed plan to ensure the persistence of caribou in the Lake Superior watershed. As of 2018/01/15, the ministry reports that seven caribou – one male and six females – have been moved from Michipicoten Island to the Slate Islands. The ultimate goal, as stated by the ministry, was to move between 10 and 12 animals, all to the Slate Islands.
We have become aware that some significant incorrect information is circulating within the ministry. We shall correct this herein.
Moving some caribou off Michipicoten Island to the Slate Islands is an excellent first step to conserving caribou; we applaud it. However, relying on the Slate Islands alone as a location to secure the future of the Lake Superior caribou is a wholly inadequate strategy. The Slate Islands are known to be connected, with some frequency, to the mainland through ice bridges, and wolves often visit these islands as a result. When wolves have visited in the past, the impacts on the caribou population have been extremely serious. Just recently, for example, wolves caused the functional extirpation of the caribou from the Slate Islands through the elimination of all females.
We have consistently called for the translocation of caribou from Michipicoten Island to not just the Slate Islands, but also to Leach Island and to Montreal Island. We take this position for at least two reasons; they are:
1) Because of how precarious the caribous’ persistence in the Lake Superior watershed remains: We must diversify the locations where caribou are found so that a single successful visit by wolves to one location does not eliminate the species; and
2) Because the caribou which have survived on Michipicoten Island up to now have successfully withstood unprecedented predator pressure. The resultant natural selection process has produced a population of the strongest, toughest, fittest caribou one could ever hope to use to ensure the persistence of caribou or anchor any efforts at restoration. Every one of these animals is worth its weight in gold.
In particular, with regard to 1), we highlight that Ontario’s Endangered Species Act states, in its preamble:
“The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity takes note of the precautionary principle, which, as described in the Convention, states that, where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.”
Considering that the precautionary principle is awarded a position at the very start of the Endangered Species Act, we must maintain at the forefront of our minds that the principle should be guiding all actions to conserve caribou at this time. We need to establish as many backup populations as possible.
Within the ministry at present circulates the notion that Leach Island and Montreal Island do not represent ideal locations to harbour caribou. This is true. Also circulating is that, because of the aforementioned fact, these islands should be disqualified from use as refugiums to hold caribou for any length of time. This is decidedly not true.
These locations successfully harboured caribou for extended periods in the past, meaning that they have an interesting and important history performing this role. Recall that, before their extirpation from Pukaskwa National Park, caribou calved on Otter Island because of the safety from predators the island offered to the caribou and their calves. Pic Island, made famous by Lawren Harris, has also been well used by caribou. It is thus highly likely that Leach Island and Montreal Island performed, in the distant past, the same role in the Lake Superior Provincial Park area that Otter Island and Pic Island performed along the north shore in the Pukaskwa National Park area. Caribou know the value of islands from a predator evasion perspective, and events in recent history with respect to Leach Island, Montreal Island, and caribou suggest evidence to support this.
Considering that caribou are now at the knife edge of elimination in the Lake Superior watershed, we must recognize that we cannot constrain ourselves to selecting only “A”-grade locations to place caribou. Arguably only predator-free Michipicoten Island is such an “A”-grade place, and other such locations simply don’t exist. We may need to select and use multiple “B”-grade locations, too. What is absolutely certain is that Leach Island and Montreal Island are anything but “F”-grade locations.
Let’s set the record straight: We’ve called, time and again, for the translocation of caribou to Leach Island and Montreal Island in addition to the Slate Islands. We have been rebuffed by the ministry each time. We wonder why. Our analysis leaves us no clearer as to the reason for the dismissal of our ideas. Below are the reasons we’ve heard that Leach Island and Montreal Island translocations shouldn’t be tried, and why we think each reason can’t represent the real reason why what we’re calling for has been dismissed:
1) The cost of additional translocations to Leach Island and Montreal Island is too high: Michipicoten First Nation has offered to pay the translocation costs for the ministry, meaning the ministry would incur few, if any, costs;
2) Size; the islands are too small to hold caribou: Montreal Island held at least two dozen caribou ten years after they were introduced there. Leach and Montreal Islands are of similar size. These islands together, therefore, can hold significantly more than enough caribou to re-establish a population on Michipicoten Island;
3) Location; the islands are too close to shore and the caribou will leave: With the exception of one female, the caribou on Montreal Island did walk off in their first winter, but they appeared to have all returned within a couple of weeks. Further, they never left again. In other words, the caribou liked the island enough to come back and stay. Recall the suggestion that caribou know the value of islands for evading predators during calving. If the islands can provide the caribou with food year round, apparently the caribou will choose to stay. The one aforementioned exception swam off Montreal Island shortly after the caribou were moved there, but she went to Leach Island. It appears she sought out a similar island on which to stay.
A male and a female were translocated to Leach Island to join the lone female, but the male left. Before leaving, though, he bred with the lone adult female there; the result was a single female calf. Had there been redundancy in bulls, there might still be caribou on Leach Island today. Noteworthy is that the lone three females on Leach Island never left. It appears their attraction to this island was stronger than the urge to reproduce.
4) Location; the islands are too close to shore and the caribou will be found and eliminated by wolves: Wolves did go out to Montreal Island and eliminate the caribou there, but this occurred ten years after the establishment of caribou on the island. It has been posited that the wolves may have been lured to the island by discarded commercial fishing by-catch. Winter commercial fishing no longer occurs there.
Wolves never went to Leach Island, and the females there apparently died of old age. These islands are therefore capable of protecting caribou from wolves for more than enough time than is required to allow for the re-establishment of the caribou population on Michipicoten Island.
In fact, in every way, Leach Island and Montreal Island represent great, if perhaps not perfect, locations to protect against the elimination of caribou in the Lake Superior watershed.
What can I do?
Once again, your role as reader and citizen is critically important. The ministry felt the pressure you applied before. Please write and phone again TODAY. Contact the people whom you contacted before and tell them you want your caribou moved to as many locations around Lake Superior as possible.
The resources are here in Wawa today.
The ministry will continue to fly out to retrieve the collars of the caribou which are killed by wolves into the future. They will also continue to collar wolves. This means that helicopter time has, in effect, already been purchased in one fashion or another. Tell the ministry you want your government to spend money conserving caribou, not watching them get slaughtered.
By electing to not move caribou to other islands, the ministry is yet again assertively insisting that it will choose research over conservation when given the choice.