The “kill site” doesn’t look like much; just a empty patch of bog in the Newfoundland wilderness, nowhere near anything.
Scientist Shane Mahoney sees the scene differently; a bear killed a caribou here.
Weathered skull fragments testify to an animal cracking the head open to eat the nutritious brains. Other bone shards support the assessment.
“They like the brains,” Environment Minister Terry French says with a big grin.
When coyotes or lynx make a kill, it looks completely different. Coyotes tend to tear the baby caribou in half and bury it.
This kill site and hundreds of others like in in southern central Newfoundland are at the front line of the province’s $15.3-million caribou management strategy.
Mahoney, executive director for sustainable development and strategic science with the Department of Environment and Conservation has been studying the caribou for decades.
In the last few years, he says, they’ve made a “quantum leap” in their understanding of the species.
Scientists have been putting radio collars on newly born calves, and tracking their movements.
If a calf is killed, the collar starts sending out a different sort of signal, and they can go to the kill site and figure out which predator did the deed.
They swab the wounds and bones for DNA, and can often pick up saliva from the predators, figuring out which species — and sometimes which individual animal — made the kill.
“We are generating the first ever really refined map of the island from a caribou perspective, from a habitat perspective. That will be a massive innovation,” Mahoney says. “We’re trying to understand this system in as much detail as possible so that we don’t make any mistakes.”
In the 1990s, the caribou population increased up to more than 100,000 animals, and then plummeted dramatically.
Today, there are around 32,000 caribou on the island of Newfoundland, but the population is slowly decreasing.
Not too long ago, the situation was much more alarming. Back in 2003, virtually no calves made it past a year.
“We’d collar calves in these populations and none would survive. Not one,” Mahoney says. “You’d see maybe 500 caribou and maybe one calf.”
French says that as far as he’s concerned, the $15.3 million the government has put up to understand the caribou is money well spent.
“It’s such an iconic animal to us in so many different ways,” he says. “Look at the outfitting industry, which is a $40 million industry in our province that employs a lot of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in good jobs. A lot of them in rural Newfoundland too; there’s not too many outfitting industries in St. John’s.”
For French, the possibility of having a comprehensive understanding of caribou, their predators, and their ecosystem means the government can make smarter decisions, especially when it comes to environmental impacts and industrial development.
“Although we allow industrial development, it’s sustainable development. You make sure you don’t interfere with the caribou herds and if you do, you work around it,” he said. ”That’s what it’s all about in our department — mitigating the environmental impact.”
After finishing up at the kill site, French and Mahoney move on to another part of the wilderness where they find a large herd of hundreds of animals.
Encouragingly, there are quite a few calves dotted in among the adults.
French and Mahoney approach the herd, cautiously and quietly. As they get closer, the animals clearly know there are humans nearby, and they keep their distance.
Mahoney says this is evidence that the animals aren’t made of glass, and they can handle a certain amount of human interaction. They’re tough and they can take care of themselves.
At the same time, he says humans need to be aware of the population, and it cannot simply be left alone. If it isn’t intelligently managed, it’s people who are liable to inadvertently do something to threaten it.
“These natural systems are complicated and if you really want to protect them you have to invest in them,” he says. “Otherwise you’re just ... bouncing along like a drunkard, you know, hitting a wall here or hitting a wall there. You may finally get to a destination but you won’t even know how you got there.”