Sink or swim: what's next for the Avalon caribou

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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Remember that old saying about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it?

Well, maybe you could add that those who ignore the past are doomed to fall right into a steaming pile of it — and in some areas, our current government is either blind to the past, or just plain stupid.

This is a story about budget cuts, caribou and a man named Mike Nolan.

As recently as last December, Nolan was featured in a “Land and Sea” repeat about how he saved the Avalon caribou herd from extinction. He wasn’t alone in working to save the herd — but the 1980 show points out that he was working solo a lot of the time.

His longest stint? Twenty-two days on the land, absolutely alone in the windswept barrens of the southern tip of the Avalon. He was regularly in the country for a week or more at a time, tracking through country on snowshoes or skis.

A former trapper, Nolan spent 25 years protecting the Avalon herd.

And the stories about how he did it were legion: he wore his snowshoes backwards to fool poachers about what direction he was travelling in; he bought the first snow machine in Newfoundland with his own money; he left faked notes to imaginary wildlife officers suggesting imminent sweeps of poachers and helicopter patrols that existed only on the notes themselves. He burned down illegal cabins in the Avalon Wilderness Area and cut others down with his saw.

It’s the image of dedicated mountain-man wildlife officer — and no matter how the stories grew, his reputation was large enough to garner author’s credits on caribou research papers and an honorary doctorate from Memorial University for his unwavering efforts to protect the herd.

And it worked.

In the 1950s, there were only 84 caribou left in the Avalon herd, living on a limited range that was facing human encroachment and a growing number of poachers.

With Nolan’s work, both limiting poaching and removing lynx from calving areas, the herd grew by 1972 to 1,000 animals — the fastest  recovery for a caribou herd in the province.

By 1980, there were 3,400 animals and some were being caught and transported to areas where caribou had been hunted to extinction.

Then the story changed. Ravaged by a brain worm, an unintended hitchhiker accidentally imported by Wilfred Grenfell’s ill-advised decision to bring 300 reindeer to this province to act as pack animals, and having outgrown food supplies on the range, the caribou population has crashed, with the Avalon herd plummeting by more than 90 per cent. There are questions about the role of coyotes in the ecosystem and, among some herds, even eagles and black bears.

It’s a crash that the province’s Environment Department is researching — and spending millions on — and, in fact, recent cuts in the wildlife division were caused by the wind-up of the study, Environment Minister Tom Hedderson told The Telegram.

“Basically we had people who were hired doing work specifically with regard to that particular strategy,” he said of the five-year, $15.3-million study. “That project has pretty well come to conclusion now.”

But it looks like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

Because that’s not the only thing that’s coming to a conclusion.

Wildlife enforcement falls under the Department of Justice now, and  recent budget cuts have removed the last two wildlife officers from the entire Southern Shore of the Avalon.

A full-time and a part-time position in Trepassey vanished last week, and in the future, monitoring of the area will be done from St. John’s. 

The Justice Department stresses that $600,000 in new technology will let officers do more field work and not be tied to satellite offices. But the idea that technology-

supported drop-in wildlife officers can replace local boots on the ground is not necessarily true.

Remember, if you’re driving to the caribou barrens, you’re either coming down the Southern Shore highway from Renews or down the highway south from Salmonier and in from St. Vincent’s. Doing that, you’re more obvious than the white of a caribou against the spring beige of the barrens.

What’s that mean? Here’s just one example.

Years ago, working for the CBC, I walked into a store in Little Heart’s Ease. Before I had a chance to say a word, the store owner said, “You’re from CBC. What do you want?”

I asked how he knew.

“They saw your van coming through Queen’s Cove and called ahead.”

Route 204 is the only road into Little Heart’s Ease, and a van with “Here and Now” plastered all over the outside is hard to miss.

Turns out the RCMP regularly have the same experience: it’s hard for marked cars or strangers not to be noticed on the one road through town, and word spreads fast that something’s up.

The Department of Justice thinks technology and a reduced, long-distance workforce will do just as well to protect a threatened herd — that being said, they also think drastic cuts to Crown attorneys and court support staff will have no effect on wait times in the province’s courts. Keeping one’s head firmly in the sand does wonders for one’s vision.

Will the occasional trip from the capital city be enough to protect a herd that ranges inland all along the span from the Cape Race Road to Portugal Cove South to Trepassey to Peter’s River?

I’m sure the Department of Justice would like to think so.

I don’t — and I’d be willing to bet my paycheque that Mike Nolan wouldn’t think so, either.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Department of Justice, The Telegram, CBC The Justice Department RCMP

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Avalon Wilderness Area, Southern Shore Trepassey Renews Cape Race Road Portugal Cove South

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Recent comments

  • crista
    April 06, 2013 - 14:56

    you can use what you like they will notice the unknown traffic and that will cause problems and have to clean it up again???? or keep it the way it is and always was and what will be the cost for that????what will be the price if that happens????

  • david
    April 06, 2013 - 14:41

    The only reason anyone in St. John's has any sympathy for caribou is because they stay off the highway. If they didn't, you'd want them decalred a public nuisance, all killed or removed, just like moose.

  • Not Rocket Scientist
    April 06, 2013 - 09:39

    Wangersky says we need to keep people in these remote areas because others will let poachers know outsides are coming down the road. That is like treating an ingrown nail by cutting off the toe. The easiest and best solution: use unmarked cars.