Commentary 2018/02/03: Under Siege

Well, it’s the first week of February and, from what we understand, our predictions regarding the elimination of the Lake Superior caribou from Michipicoten Island Provincial Park (MIPP) are coming to pass. We are in the knowledge that only a handful of wildlife collars affixed to caribou remain functioning – not in “mortality” mode. A chart of some mortalities experienced by collared caribou makes clear what the dominant mechanism of death is for the caribou in MIPP these days.

Among the things we’ve learned is that one of the MIPP caribou is spending much of its time on one of MIPP’s smaller nearby islands, offshore of main Michipicoten Island. The animal – an adult female – swims back to Michipicoten Island, probably to feed, but then returns to the offshore island for safety. This is standard predator evasion strategy for the caribou of the coast. The caribou know wolves are highly disinclined to swim in Lake Superior, so islands are, in effect, caribou fortresses complete with moats. Therein, the caribou are under siege. Unfortunately, ice frequently forms between Michipicoten Island and its smaller satellites. Thus, if (likely, when) this ice forms this year, this tough-as-nails animal will probably succumb to predation just like most of its associates have. What a waste.

Don’t we have enough GPS collar data on caribou movement, or do we need to study the last MIPP caribou to death? It seems that, within the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), this is still a valid question to ask.

The last animals are desperately hanging on, and conservation at the MNRF for a species at risk is nowhere to be seen.

Is There Any Good News?

Make no mistake: We’re very happy to learn that the caribou translocated from MIPP to Slate Islands Provincial Park (SIPP) by the MNRF seem to be doing fine. Unfortunately, relocating all that will shortly be left of the caribou of Lake Superior to only one location – a location which often experiences the formation of ice bridges to the mainland – represents putting all of our eggs in one somewhat flimsy basket. We’ve talked about this before.


We learned also that at least one caribou was euthanized because it was not expected to recover from injuries sustained as a result of the MNRF’s translocation effort. Such injuries and potential losses are to be expected with the type of translocation methodologies which were used by the MNRF. We have no doubt that everyone at the MNRF had the best interests of all of the caribou at heart. We do not, therefore, criticize the MNRF for the injury sustained by the caribou. In addition, we most emphatically assert that the risk to caribou of such injuries and associated potential losses should never be used to justify not undertaking important translocation efforts. Doing the right thing comes with risks; that’s just how it is.

Nevertheless, these animals are members of a population of a species at risk. When was the MNRF anticipating telling the people of Ontario that one of its caribou was lost? The MNRF spoke, or was in contact, with multiple major media outlets since the translocation, yet we learn only now of the loss. Why not be forthcoming with this information? Why the opacity? It appears that one of several systemic problems within the MNRF is that the organization obsesses about the face it presents to the media. With all due respect, the MNRF is an organization which should worry first – and, arguably, almost exclusively – about competent stewardship and management of the people of Ontario’s resources. As a result of this, it should be a veritable font of information disseminated frequently and transparently. We don’t feel the MNRF has come close to rising to this expectation in any way in the current odyssey.

Now What? Caribou Island, That’s What!

Valiantly, Michipicoten First Nation (MFN) and a number of private parties have offered to coordinate and pay for a translocation of the remaining caribou from Michipicoten Island to other locations. The town of Wawa, too, has come out in support of this initiative. Initially, the best candidate locations to receive the remaining Lake Superior caribou were Leach Island and Montreal Island. As discussed in Gord Eason’s great caribou relocation report, these islands represent far more than “bare-minimum” options to safeguard Lake Superior’s caribou.

Recently, another relocation site option – possibly the best option of all – has emerged: Caribou Island. Likely the remotest place in the Great Lakes basin, Caribou Island, like Leach and Montreal Islands, has a history of harbouring caribou. In fact, historical records indicate that the population was, at times, extensive. Caribou Island is extremely far from Lake Superior’s mainland, so the likelihood that predators should ever reach it is very small. True, from a habitat perspective, Michipicoten Island is probably the best location to safeguard Lake Superior’s caribou. From the perspective of caribou isolation from predators, however, Caribou Island cannot be eclipsed.

The number one rule in investment is diversification. Caribou Island would be a magnificent addition to the portfolio of those who are interested in conserving Lake Superior’s caribou. What remains in the way of pursing this unique option? Would you be surprised to learn that it’s the MNRF?

What’s the Problem?

The MNRF dismissed using Leach Island and Montreal Island as places to establish caribou backup populations principally through the argument that these islands are too close to shore to effectively protect caribou from predation. Do we understand correctly that this assertion is being made by the very people who are leaving caribou in MIPP to succumb to the wolves which are already on Michipicoten Island? Another argument put forth by the MNRF to dismiss these islands is that any caribou relocated there will all simply walk off. The MNRF needs to read Mr. Eason’s report to set the records straight: These islands are good locations to safeguard caribou, and history has shown that caribou love to stay on their islands.

On the basis of fallacious proximity-to-shore arguments, the MNRF – the Liberal Government of Ontario – dismissed granting permits for MFN to engage in caribou translocations on MFN’s Robinson-Superior Treaty lands. Permits are needed to, among other things, fly over and land in lands regulated as a provincial park under Ontario’s Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act; to utilize experienced professional wildlife capture companies to capture caribou; and to move caribou – members of a species at risk regulated under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act – to the other islands which are within MFN’s treaty lands.

Now, in conjunction with allies, MFN has arranged to move caribou to the remotest island in the entire Great Lakes basin. Concerns regarding proximity-to-shore have been eliminated. Caribou translocation experts are waiting to act. Why, then, does the MNRF continue to deny permits? Is it that the MNRF wants to continue to study caribou to death? Well, if it quacks like a duck…