Absent friends

Atlantic-Gaspésie caribou atop Mont Jacques-Cartier, Que. Photo: Zack Metcalfe

For me the Atlantic caribou represent a long-standing obsession, one which began around 2016. While perusing Nova Scotia’s species-at-risk registry (as I do for fun), I stumbled across an entry claiming that, as recently as the last century, the Maritimes had our very own population of Woodland caribou, uniquely adapted to Atlantic Canada.

We all know of caribou, their herds so massive as to shake the Earth with their northerly migrations, but never could I have imagined those herds conquering the rocky shores of Lunenburg County through winter or passing the summer heat among the Cobequid Mountains. Yet they were here, and the evidence is on our landscape. Just ask Caribou Island, Caribou Bog, Caribou Road, and Caribou Harbour.

The evidence is also in Nova Scotia’s Museum of Natural History, if you know where to look. By 2017, I’d gone so far as to schedule a meeting with curator of zoology Andrew Hebda, who shared with me dusty old volumes dedicated to provincial natural history, their pages held in place by tape or else falling freely apart.

“They were here and now they’re not,” said Hebda, summarizing everything we know about the lives of these caribou in our province. “Everybody back then seems to have spent all of their time putting roofs over their heads and food in their mouths. There’s very little pre-20th-century information on caribou distribution, habitat use, or anything like that.”

After our sojourn through old books he led me into the unseen storage rooms of this museum’s upper levels, cooled to the point of condensed breath and filled to bursting with this institute’s collected treasures, some waiting their turn in the limelight, others unfit for public viewing.

He showed me bones belonging to the long-dead caribou of Nova Scotia, plus antlers and mounted heads, some still bearing screw holes from their tenure on living-room walls. We know where some of these specimens came from, but the origins of most are lost to history. Here were ghosts, haunting me thereafter with their absence.

The factors which expelled them from Nova Scotia are clear enough. The thorough removal of old-forest habitat left them without a livelihood, and given the province’s narrowness, their seasonal destinations were easily predicted by hunters. The final blow was the influx of White-Tailed deer, made possible by the shift to younger forest types encouraged by European settlement. These invading deer carried with them the brainworm Parelaphostrongylus tenuis, to which they themselves are immune. When passed onto other members of the deer family, however, such as moose and caribou, this brainworm becomes lethal.

The effective extirpation of Nova Scotia’s caribou is traced to 1905 on the mainland and 1912 on Cape Breton Island. Put simply, the province was no longer hospitable, its forests immature, its predators armed with rifles, and its competition carrying the plague.

This state of affairs was exemplified by two separate attempts at reintroduction, in 1939 at the Liscomb Game Sanctuary and among the Cape Breton Highlands in the late 1960s. Neither attempt succeeded. By 1927 these same events played out again in New Brunswick. The last written record of resident caribou on P.E.I. comes from 1765.

But while the Atlantic caribou can no longer be found in the Maritimes, they are not yet extinct. We forced them north until they were left with one sanctuary in all the world: the Chic Choc Mountains of Gaspésie National Park in eastern Quebec.

While the entirety of the Gaspé Peninsula is being recklessly clearcut, logging of any kind has been banned within this park since 1977. My mounting obsession carried me here in August of 2017, and when the park’s border came into view I saw immediately why these caribou chose here to stand against extinction.

The Maritimes are tragically flat, with modest exceptions among the Cape Breton Highlands and Mount Carleton, but Gaspésie park offers us a chance to touch the sky. Mont Jacques-Cartier, the park’s highest point, is 1,270 metres tall and perhaps the best single peak on which to find the last of the Atlantic caribou.

Unfettered forestry around the park and the resulting encroachment of coyotes and deer are causing this refuge is crumbling like all those before it. By the 1950s, these mountains still harboured between 700 and 1,500 caribou, but by the 1990s they had declined to a mere 200. Today there are 90.

My pursuit of this caribou ended Aug. 18, 2017 when I gained the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, an alpine peak of shattered stone and meager vegetation. Several stones were organized into mounds, marking the trail that all visitors were obliged to follow. Just beyond them, lounging in no-man’s-land with a mountainous backdrop, were the Atlantic-Gaspésie caribou. Here was the end of a very long pilgrimage, for me, but more so for them.

I’m a firm believer in rewilding, in the restoration of our region until it resembles its old self in both beautiful and biodiversity. Every absent species leaves a gap, hindering the ability of our home to function and to heal. On a personal note, it leaves Nova Scotia with a weakened grip on my imagination.

No single loss demonstrates this better than that of the Atlantic caribou, once widespread, now withering away on a chain of Quebec mountains, waiting for us to come to our senses and consider the needs of all who live or lived here. The alternative is to watch these caribou disappear in our lifetime.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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