Reindeer Games


Seeing as it’s almost Christmas, it seems timely to say something about Santa’s reindeer. It’s a story about caribou in Ontario, something published a couple of months back in Ontario Out of Doors. This is the unedited version. It’s likely different than what you read about caribou elsewhere.

Caribou occur across northern portions of Eurasia and North America and all caribou (and their domestic counterpart, reindeer) are the same species (Rangifer tarandus). In North America, there were originally 6 sub-species, but one is now extinct. From Manitoba east, all caribou are the woodland caribou sub-species (R. t. caribou).

Early in 2005, the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre compiled information on cervid (deer) populations from wildlife agencies and estimated there were 3.9 million caribou in the country, compared to about 3.2 million white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose combined.  Since then, populations have fluctuated somewhat, but it’s likely caribou numbers are still roughly equal or greater than the total of all other cervids. Back in 2005, it was thought there were about 21,000 caribou in Ontario – recent surveys suggest there are close to 30,000 in the province.

But in Ontario, there is no licensed caribou hunt. The last year licensed hunters could take a caribou here was in 1928. Why is this?

I believe the present policy of no licenced hunting of caribou in Ontario is a reflection of historical management actions coupled with a more recent trend favouring protectionism.

In her book ‘Canadian Wildlife and Man’, Dr. Anne Innis Dagg chronicled that in Ontario until 1946, big game management consisted mainly of setting open and closed seasons and bag limits, enforcing those regulations and paying bounties on timber wolves, coyotes and bears. In her opinion, that strategy wasn’t very effective, in large part because the government had few biologists on staff and little attention was paid to the biological basis of management.

With respect to caribou, the Ontario government of more than 100 years ago did know that caribou had ranged across the province as far south as Lake Nipissing, but range occupancy steadily receded after European settlement in the 1800’s.  By the early 1900’s caribou had had largely disappeared from the southern half of the province and concern over this led to the closure of the hunt for non-natives. However, no one really knows how many caribou there used to be on southern ranges. Brian Hutchinson, a former biologist with Parks Canada who had caribou conservation as one of his files, said “Many of the assumptions of caribou range in the early 1900’s are just that – assumptions.”

Once licensed hunting ceased, not much was done for years with respect to caribou management, despite the more modern, post ’46 approach to management.

What did occur? A provincial population estimate of 13,000 was made in 1965 from aerial surveys conducted between 1959 and 1964, and between 1951 and 1986 there were five reviews written on the status of caribou. In 1967 a report was published suggesting caribou numbers in the province were well below carrying capacity (based largely on lichen abundance, the staple winter food). In 1975 some habitat management initiatives began.

Hutchinson notes that aerial surveys of caribou are notoriously poor with respect to estimating numbers, which is why biologists mostly use ‘range occupancy’ as a surrogate for population.

In 1989 the MNR wrote a ‘background to a policy’ paper on woodland caribou which recommended the re-evaluation of the sport hunting closure and suggested that native peoples could derive economic benefits from marketing such a hunt. MNR’s Wildlife Branch spent considerable effort to produce a caribou policy which included the possibility of a licenced hunt, but the policy was never approved.

In recent years, MNR has focused on trying to manage caribou habitat to retain and restore populations on southern ranges. There has been emphasis on monitoring and research and two huge provincial parks, Woodland Caribou and Wabakimi, were created largely to protect caribou and caribou habitat.

Although all caribou in Ontario are the same sub-species, some biologists believe a finer level of classification is required for management. As such, woodland caribou that live in forested habitats have been labelled the forest-dwelling ecotype.  Woodland caribou that live on the open tundra, but migrate into the forest – usually to over-winter – are said to be the forest-tundra ecotype. Aboriginals in northern Manitoba also refer to the northern herds as migratory.

However, there’s no clear distinction between the two, as some caribou are known to hang out with the tundra-forest animals, sometimes for years, and then become forest dwellers at a later stage, or vice-versa. And genetic analysis has been arguably non-conclusive in terms of providing a clear distinction between herds and ecotypes.

Despite these issues, the forest dwelling ecotype has been identified as a Species at Risk (SAR) in Ontario, with a status of Endangered. This is consistent with the status of forest dwelling woodland caribou nationally – COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, declared the forest-dwelling ecotype as a nationally threatened species in 2000, based primarily on their perceived vulnerability and changes in range occupancy.

Regardless of what one thinks of management by ecotype, there are about 20,000 caribou in Ontario that live mostly on far northern ranges and are not managed as a SAR. This means licenced hunting is possible and does, in fact, occur – in Manitoba – where they regularly migrate.

Dr. James Duncan, Wildlife Branch Director of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, believes the Manitoba licensed hunt, which is restricted to northern herds, is sustainable and would be willing to share their knowledge and experience with Ontario.

Mark Ryckman, Senior Wildlife Biologist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, says the OFAH supports protection of caribou on southern ranges, but would be open to seeing a hunt in the far north.

It seems to me there is no valid reason why Ontario couldn’t have a licensed caribou hunt. There doesn’t appear to be a sustainability issue, and even if the number of tags available were small, important economic and social benefits would still be accrued.

  1. John said:

    Thanks for writing all of these articles Bruce. Interesting reading!

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