January/February – Lake Superior Woodland Caribou Update


In the last newsletter, I mentioned the attempts being made by MFN to conserve the caribou of Michipicoten Island and Lake Superior. There has been a significant amount of press about this since then, so I want to use this column to provide some answers to questions that are commonly heard.

Why are there caribou on Michipicoten Island? 

Woodland caribou used to live all around Lake Superior as well as inland to areas like White River, and Chapleau. Over the last one hundred and fifty years changes brought on by industrial activity have driven caribou from most of that area, leaving only a few animals along the Northern and – until about seven years ago – the Eastern shores of Superior.

In the 19th century there were caribou on Michipicoten Island, but they were all killed off by the miners and fishermen living on the island. In 1981 a single bull was found on the island, and caribou were brought from the Slate Islands to see if Michipicoten Island would prove to be a good habitat for them. By 2011 there were an estimated 680 caribou on Michipicoten Island. Our modeling suggests that by 2014, when the wolves arrived, the numbers would have been around 950.

Why interfere if the wolves got out there on their own? 

The Endangered Species Act provides the mandate to manage species at risk for persistence on the landscape. With the decline of the mainland population, the two island populations (Slate Islands and Michipicoten Island) were the last holdouts of the Lake Superior range.

After the wolves reached the island, the MNRF caught the wolves, and decided to engage in a study (they also did this on the Slate Islands). This was done without any consultation. Leaving the wolves to kill off the caribou on both the Slate Islands and Michipicoten Island not only results in the loss of a unique population that has lived on Lake Superior since the last ice age, but also the loss of economic and cultural opportunities that exist for MFN if caribou persist. It will also likely result in the death of the wolves.

How many caribou are left now? 

The whole Lake Superior range is likely under 40 animals now, down from over 1100 just a few years ago.

When did MFN get involved? 

The file was given to me by former Chief Joe Buckell in February of 2017. Chief Pat Tangie wrote her first letter to the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry in April of 2017. Things began to get very busy in October, and Chief Tangie’s forceful phone calls and emails to the Minister in late November and early December proved very influential.

Why didn’t we just kill the wolves? 

Because the number of wolves on the island could be as high as 20, killing them all is not an easy task. No hunters or trappers who we spoke to felt that they would be able to bring the population low enough to ensure the caribou would survive this winter.

What other options were considered? 

The first option we considered was removing the wolves from the island, because the end goal was to have caribou on Michipicoten Island, and for MFN to become involved in the management of the island, taking advantage of some cultural and economic opportunities that would come with that. We thought there could be a possibility to move the wolves to Isle Royale, a large island on the U.S. side of Lake Superior where they have been considering reintroducing wolves. Chief Tangie was in touch with the leadership of the Chippewa of Grand Portage Tribe in an attempt to come to an agreement on the project.

Though we had the tacit support of many of the groups involved, it would have taken too long to make the move happen.

As mentioned above we considered a cull, both independently and with MNRF support.

Eventually, we settled on translocating caribou off of the island. If this job was to be done right, we argued, it was important to move caribou to more than just one other location, since we found out on December 1st that the Slate Islands caribou were down to 2-4 males, and no longer a viable sub-population. The MNRF refused to heed our advice – including that provided by experts who were working for MFN – and successfully moved 9 caribou to the Slate Islands in the middle of January.

What happens now? 

Unfortunately, caribou will almost certainly be gone from Michipicoten Island by the end of this winter. Much will depend on whether the animals moved to the Slate Islands are able to grow into a suitable population to eventually reseed Michipicoten Island, however, this will take several years.

MFN is working to establish agreements with the MNRF that would allow for MFN to be involved in all future monitoring efforts for the caribou, and to be involved in the management of the range going forward.

MFN has also been working to have the last few animals moved to a second island, Caribou Island, which is much closer than the Slates and more secure from wolves. As of the time of the writing of this document those efforts are underway. We are also looking for funding that would allow us to acquire a boat that could be used for multiple purposes, including future management of the caribou.

Leo Lepiano, Lands and Resources Consultation Coordinator