Back when the Trans-Labrador Highway was all potholes in dirt, wary drivers slowed down — but not just because the relentless bumps threatened to throw them off the road. It was the caribou, you see.
You could easily speed around a tight esker bend to first find a single animal blocking your way, and then behind it a whole herd choking the highway — from ditch to ditch and far into the woods.
In those days, the George River caribou numbered in the hundreds of thousands and seemed to be everywhere, with far-flung animals not only showing up on the roads, but high up on the barren northern coastlines and even crossing Lake Melville ice.
They were searching for something that was becoming rare in the herd’s normal range: undepleted forage.
Most of that part of the Trans-Labrador Highway is now paved. Drivers can achieve remarkably high speeds on it, but the wary still slow down in case they meet wildlife — only it’s not caribou these days.
The great caribou ranges are gone and so the animals that depended on them for sustenance are either dead or scattered. Even if disputers are right and the George River herd hasn’t dropped so low as the official count (down to less than 30,000 from around 800,000 a mere two decades ago), there’s still no question something dramatic is happening.
The caribou aren’t just missed on the region’s highways, but more seriously by hunters in two provinces who are even now contemplating the final end to their hunt. The hunters in no way started the decline, but they are worried they might help finish the herd off altogether.
This time (unlike all the other times the population has plunged so low) the caribou might not be able to recover.
Unfortunately, these caribou aren’t the only ones on the continent suffering a bleak present and facing an even bleaker future. There are woodland caribou, for example, in northwestern Quebec, across northern Ontario and into Manitoba that are in danger of having most of their habitat cut down around them. There’s one herd in Alberta being monitored for tar sands contamination and another 14 in the province that face losing most of their vital old-growth habitat to cutlines, roads and loggers — in addition to the 84 per cent sold off for oil and gas rights.
In British Columbia, the provincial government is disputing claims that the southern population of mountain caribou is in a state of collapse caused by logging, but it does admit the sudden drop from 325 to 200 animals represents a dangerously steep decline.
Most tragically, Idaho’s woodland caribou are getting written off by U.S. Fish and Wildlife as being too few to be worth saving anymore — this to allow recreational vehicles access to their currently protected range.
None of these cases were caused by hunters of any kind — human or canine, despite what Alberta’s wolf slaughter leads people to believe. In all cases, the caribou are being pushed to the brink because of industrial exploitation that is destroying their life-giving habitat with roads, pipelines, dams, mines, cutting blocks, oil and gas wells, townsites, railways and all the accompanying physical, chemical and noise pollution. Only in areas where at least 65 per cent of a herd’s range is protected — as in parts of Alaska and possibly in Ontario — does it have a chance to survive and thrive.
That chance may not be given to the caribou of the Ungava Peninsula. Their woodland ranges are already in tatters, blasted and drowned by roads, mines and hydro dams, their hills denuded of primordial forest. Their northern ranges are likewise vanishing. The western parts have long been drowned and they’re quickly losing the rest to new mines and new reservoirs.
Fortunately, the region’s aboriginal groups are doing more than just discussing whether or not to eat the last of the George River herd. While a push for a hunting moratorium is growing, the Nunatsiavut government has gone further, becoming involved in a proposal to protect 3.5-million acres of caribou calving grounds from mineral exploration and other kinds of industrial destruction.
A moratorium might preserve the caribou, but only habitat protection will bring them back.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.