The Fight to Save Lake Superior’s Last Caribou

After rampant old-growth deforestation and development, this coastal population could be quickly wiped out

By Andy McGlashen

August 7, 2021


Photo courtesy of Brian McLaren

In 2014, extreme cold encased Lake Superior almost entirely in ice. Wolves ambled across new ice bridges to Michipicoten Island and the Slate Islands, which together held a population of around 1,000 caribou. By 2018, the wolves had whittled the herds to just 15 on Michipicoten and two on the Slates, both males. Prodded by wildlife advocates to do something, the Ontario government conducted emergency airlifts that winter to save the Michipicoten caribou and restart modest herds on the Slates, from which wolves by then had vanished, and on smaller, farther-from-shore Caribou Island.

Wolves may have been the immediate cause of death, but it was generations of logging, mining, and industrial development that have pushed Lake Superior’s caribou to the brink of extirpation. Climate change is also a factor. Ice bridges were once more common, allowing both caribou and predators to move fluidly between islands and the coast. But warming temperatures have driven a decline in Superior’s ice cover, isolating herds and making them more vulnerable.   

Today the entire population sits at maybe 60 animals, says Gord Eason, a retired Ontario government biologist. That tally includes around 30 caribou on the Slate Islands. It includes a herd of about 20 that, if it grows much, could easily outstrip Caribou Island’s food supply and starve. And it includes Eason’s generous estimate of around 10 animals along the coast; it’s been more than four years since aerial winter surveys turned up evidence of caribou on the mainland. He and others now suspect that caribou sign reported in earlier surveys may in fact have been from whitetail deer.

Eason and an informal coalition of scientists, Indigenous leaders, and citizen-advocates say they’re deeply concerned about what will happen if Superior freezes over again this winter. The Ontario government was too slow to intervene in 2018, they say. And Premier Doug Ford’s government, which took office a few months after the airlifts, has been an adamant supporter of the very industries that degrade caribou habitat. “We are very concerned that the Ontario government would not act in time, if at all,” Eason says. “If we lose the population around Lake Superior, then the next-furthest-north caribou become the southern end of the range. Then a little group of them will become isolated somehow, and they’ll disappear. It just keeps going and going. That is the process of extinction.” 

The animals around Lake Superior are boreal woodland caribou—a subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, which includes reindeer, barren-ground caribou that roam the Arctic tundra, and woodland caribou in the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. They were never very abundant—their survival strategy in boreal forests is to avoid predators by being scarce—but thousands of them once slunk through the region’s dense woods, hidden bogs, and rocky islands. In the 1800s, however, loggers began cutting old-growth forests laden with lichens that caribou like to eat, replacing them with brushy young woods better suited to moose and whitetail deer. This abundant new prey attracted more wolves, which used roads and other manmade corridors to more efficiently hunt moose, deer, and caribou alike. The deer also brought with them a parasitic brainworm harmless to them but lethal to caribou. By the late 1800s, industrial development had opened up a gap that now stretches 60 or 70 miles between the Lake Superior caribou and herds to the north. Today caribou are present only fleetingly if at all in this range, bureaucratically known as the “discontinuous distribution.” 

Boreal caribou once ranged across Canada from Labrador to the Yukon Territory and as far south as Maine, Michigan, and other northern states. But they have lost roughly half of that range in the past 150 years, their territory receding northward with encroaching development. The last herd in the contiguous United States—the South Selkirk herd of mountain woodland caribou, in northern Idaho and Washington State—winked out in 2018. In Canada, only 14 out of 51 boreal herds are self-sustaining. They are considered threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act and Ontario’s Endangered Species Act.  

Advocates for Lake Superior’s caribou say what’s needed is to rebuild a big enough herd on Michipicoten Island to withstand some predation and buy time for another intervention, should wolves return. A successful translocation to Michipicoten would preserve and grow a genetic pool from which to restore the mainland herds. Doing nothing could bring a swift end to a population.  

Ontario’s 2009 caribou conservation plan made it provincial policy to rebuild connections between the northern herds and the isolated Lake Superior population by protecting certain landscapes within the discontinuous distribution. Before industrial development severed those linkages, natural intermingling would have allowed northern caribou to occasionally mix with the herds along the coast and help rebuild the population when its numbers dwindled, according to Brian McLaren, an ecologist at Lakehead University. “That was probably never a discontinuous range, and it was always important to their persistence,” he says. With so few caribou left along Superior, “it’s even more important now.” While building up a herd on Michipicoten Island is the immediate priority, there’s no time to delay with that longer-term project, he says. “If you’re not going to start building corridors with slow-growing boreal forest now, you’re not going to get them in 20 or 30 years.” 

But at the moment, it’s not clear whether Ontario plans to reconnect the herds at all. Just after the emergency rescue in 2018, the provincial government invited the public to help shape a new policy for managing caribou around Lake Superior and in the discontinuous distribution. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry asked the public for feedback on four possible management approaches: restore caribou on the Lake Superior mainland and islands and reconnect them with the northern herds; rebuild herds on Superior’s mainland and islands but forget the northern connections; keep them on the islands but don’t worry about the mainland; or do nothing.  

The Ministry of Environment, Conservation, and Parks, which oversees caribou management after a recent reshuffling of the provincial cabinet, did not respond to questions by press time. But a July 7 email from the ministry to caribou advocates suggests that the government has abandoned its earlier goal of reconnecting the Lake Superior population to the northern herds. “The ministry continues to focus efforts on monitoring and securing the island caribou populations, specifically the Slate Islands population,” wrote Hilary Gignac, a manager in MECP’s Species at Risk Branch, in response to an email from Eason and others urging the province to return caribou to Michipicoten Island and the mainland. “We also continue to explore management approaches for caribou in the Lake Superior Coast Range, with the interests you have shared being taken into consideration, along with all other feedback and perspectives we have received.” Eason says the response indicates that the province has already chosen the islands-only, third option for managing the Superior herds. 

To critics, it’s more evidence that Ford’s government is focused too much on supporting industry and not enough on protecting the environment—a view supported by a 2020 report from the province’s auditor general. Under Ford, Ontario has moved boost mining by cutting red tape and “by sending swat teams into projects that are ready to move to a major milestone,” in the words of Greg Rickford, the provincial minister of northern development, mines, natural resources, and forestry. The government has also laid out a plan to double Ontario’s logging output over the next decade, and last December used a pandemic recovery bill to permanently exempt logging from provincial endangered species law.

“They don’t care what the ramifications might be,” says Chief Patricia Tangie of the Michipicoten First Nation, who has played a primary role in the efforts to save Lake Superior’s caribou. “They’re not interested in environmental integrity. What they’re doing is totally unsustainable, and I tell them this all the time.”  

Tangie says she and others in her Ojibwe community on Superior’s northeast coast feel a profound duty to ensure the continued survival of caribou, which sustained their ancestors until just a few generations ago. “We have to take our responsibility seriously, the responsibility Creator gave us at the beginning of time,” she says. 

Hopefully the advocacy that she, Eason, and others are so invested in will lead to a future in which Lake Superior’s caribou again have the habitat they need to thrive, Tangie says. She envisions a day when caribou become plentiful enough to provide her people with sustenance once more. “Food is medicine,” she says. “Maybe my great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren might know what it’s like to have the strength of the caribou within our bodies.”