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One of the boreal caribou living in the enclosure, pictured here in September 2020, has started to grow its antlers out.Handout

Biologist Geneviève Tremblay stood in a fenced enclosure in Quebec last spring and watched as the last seven Val-d’Or caribou woke up, groggy and confused from a sedative, in their new home.

The herd of boreal woodland caribou, a threatened species in Canada, was airlifted to the 1.8-hectare pen south of Val-d’Or near Lac Sabourin last March. It was supposed to be a short-term measure by the Quebec government to protect the animals from predators. Eight months later, the caribou are still there.

“It was frustrating because there was no plan. We put them in the enclosure and then what?” said Ms. Tremblay, a biologist with the Council of the Anishnabe Nation of Lac-Simon.

The province’s promise to build a larger enclosure before winter never materialized and the herd continues to shrink in size. One of the adult males died over the summer, leaving a total of six: three female adults, two male adults and one male calf.

The species is in such a precarious situation because its natural habitat around Val-d’Or, in western Quebec, has been transformed over the years by logging and mining, and the infrastructure to support those industries.

But a scientific report that was commissioned by the Lac-Simon council and released Wednesday offers a path to saving the herd: It examines the caribou’s habitat selection patterns and, based on that, evaluates several possible scenarios for closing roads and allowing the forest in its range to regrow. While across Canada, 81 per cent of boreal caribou populations are in decline, this analysis outlines how one herd in Western Quebec could be saved if officials commit to habitat restoration.

Biologist Martin-Hugues St-Laurent, a professor of animal ecology at Université du Québec à Rimouski, authored the study. He warns that when boreal caribou disappear, it’s a sign that other species – smaller, less closely monitored ones – are likely struggling as well.

“They really are a kind of canary in the mine. If they are there, it’s because we are taking care of the land,” he said. “And when we are losing them, it’s because we failed at protecting the environment and the habitat.”

The Lac-Simon council has submitted copies of the report to both the provincial and federal governments. Ms. Tremblay is hoping the analysis will be enough to push Quebec into action.

A spokesperson for Quebec’s Minister of Forests, Wildlife and Parks said the file for all caribou herds in Quebec is being studied, and they would not comment until the review was completed.

The Val-d’Or caribou population, an isolated and genetically distinct herd, has been shrinking for decades. Timber and mining activity in the region has transformed the forest, making the land more suitable for the caribou’s competitors (moose and deer) and for their predators (wolves and bears).

“The Val-d’Or herd declined by roughly 90 per cent within the last 50 years. They are at the fringe of extinction now,” Prof. St-Laurent said in an interview, discussing his report. “They were living ... in one of the most intensively disturbed areas in Quebec and probably in Canada,” he said.

Lac-Simon Chief Adrienne Jérôme has seen the forest change first-hand over her lifetime.

Caribou, or Adik as the Anishnabe call them, are core to the community’s culture and way of life. Ms. Jérôme said her community stopped hunting Adik in the 1980s, when they noticed the population was struggling.

“The caribou, they saved our ancestors. It’s one of the animals that saved them, in giving its life,” she said, noting that during harsh winters the herd had helped to sustain their community.

While the Lac-Simon community adapted its practices, Ms. Jérôme said so far they haven’t been able to persuade the province to make similar sacrifices.

“It’s always about the economy. But one day, are we going to be able to eat that money? No.”

Ms. Jérôme thought the community had finally made progress when, in 2018, the federal government signed a $1.26-million agreement to fund the research and work necessary to re-establish the herd and restore its habitat in Val-d’Or.

Part of that money was supposed to pay for closing forest roads that cut through the caribou’s territory. The roads make the herd especially vulnerable, because wolves use them to hunt.

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The province has not announced what it plans to do with the herd, beyond keeping them in the pen, which is pictured here in the spring of 2020 from a drone.Handout

But to get that work done, the council needed approval from the province of Quebec. Two years later, not a single road closing has been authorized by the province.

Ms. Tremblay, the biologist, said in her work with the Lac-Simon council, they’ve been dealing with two levels of government in overlapping jurisdictions, trying to get results.

“It’s the federals who are responsible for the protection of threatened species, but the province is responsible for their habitat,” she said.

She hopes this report will help move things along. Until now, she said discussions with the province about habitat restoration were always steered in the direction of how to limit any disturbances to the forestry industry and to the people who use the forest, such as hunters.

A spokesperson for the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change said their office is analyzing the report.

“We are concerned about the situation of the Val-d’Or herd and are taking concrete steps to protect and recover this iconic species,” said press secretary Moira Kelly. “Our government is continuing to work closely with both the Anishnabe Nation of Lac-Simon and the Government of Quebec to identify timely actions to undertake for the recovery of the herd.”

Those actions should include, according to Prof. St-Laurent, forest restoration and introducing caribou from other herds, as well as emergency measures such as killing off some predators to restore the balance and an immediate stop to logging in a larger area than what is covered by the moratorium currently in place.

“Just putting the animals in a pen while not lowering the proportion of disturbed habitat, no breaks on logging and no road closures, it’s a loss of time. It’s just to give the impression that we’re doing something while we’re just waiting to see those animals die,” he said.

Ms. Jérôme said she hopes to one day have the chance to hunt and eat caribou the way the previous generation did. She hopes that her children will have that opportunity, too.

“It’s the last chance to save the caribou,” she said. “The caribou have been a part of our life forever.”

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