FW 4800 Guest Blog: Lake Superior’s Little Known Caribou Species on the Brink

Lake Superior shoreline
Lake Superior shoreline
Crew members watch as a caribou is released on the Slate Islands off Ontario’s North Shore of Lake Superior over the weekend of Jan. 13-15, 2018. Seven caribou were moved over the weekend off Michipicoten Island in hopes some of the herd will survive. Credit: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry via Forum News Service

Most common job skill in demand? Good communication. Natural resource students from FW 4800 practice writing in op-ed letters and share their thoughts on issues from their field.

If you ask any eight-year-old where reindeer live they would reply with certainty: “at the North Pole.” But as late as 1912, their range stretched as far south as Michigan. Now the species has been pushed back north to a few scattered islands in Lake Superior, and a small herd in the northernmost stretches of the American Rockies. This species has been decimated by habitat destruction, hunting and vehicle collisions. Any recovery efforts on the islands in Superior have been limited by predation. I would like to see immediate action taken by both the United States and Canadian governments to provide caribou populations in Lake Superior more effective protections, as well as increased awareness and support by the local communities.

Lake Superior is home to a specific subspecies of caribou known as the boreal woodland caribou (Rangiferus tarandus). Designated as threatened in 2002, the only remaining American population is in the northern Rocky Mountains. This herd was most recently found to have three remaining females, leaving them unable to sustain a population.

On Lake Superior, the Slate islands, Michipicoten Island and Caribou Island have all supported caribou in recent years. Most notably, Michipicoten supported between 500-1,000 individuals in 2014, but that population was entirely wiped out by wolves as of March 2018. Just two months before the last collared animal died, ten were transferred to the Slate islands. A week before, an adult bull was transferred to Caribou island. These two islands support the last of Lake Superior’s caribou, and they remain incredibly vulnerable.

caribou browsing in wildflowers
 Habitat loss, changing climate and predation has pushed caribou populations north where small isolated herds live on Lake Superior islands. Credit: R. Tsong, Courtesy Wilderness Inquiry

After spending the past four years living in Houghton and Escanaba, I have become increasingly exposed to the issues surrounding the Upper Peninsula and Lake Superior communities. A research project in a natural resource communications class gave me the opportunity to dive deeper into the dwindling Lake Superior caribou populations. I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring this issue to the attention of the Michigan Tech community, as many feel a strong connection to the area and the natural resources surrounding it. I hope some will be inspired to become more involved in this issue.

If we want any hope of maintaining this population, immediate action needs to be taken to transfer wolves off Michipicoten and the Slate islands and breeding populations need to be reestablished on Michipicoten. The island has proven in the past to support the species in relatively high numbers and with the waters of Superior continuing to warm, the likelihood of an ice bridge decreases with each passing year.

Previous recovery plans have failed spectacularly, as they seemed to follow a “wait-and-see” strategy. Now we have waited, and the results are plain to see. The Rocky Mountain population will be gone by the end of the decade, the Slate Island population has been eliminated by wolves in the past and it has already happened on Michipicoten. Do we really expect them to survive without some kind of change?

To quote an old adage, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.” We can’t keep playing this ping pong game of bouncing caribou from island to island only to have them decimated by wolves a few years later. We need to ensure that these animals have the opportunity to recover through active management of predators. I will not call for the culling or extermination of wolves on these islands, only that they be managed to prevent the destruction of these herds. I believe relocation would be the best possible option. I recognize that this is more difficult than simply shooting any wolf that makes it out to the island, but what is the point of protecting one at risk species by eliminating another?

Right now we are in a window where ice bridges bringing wolves to the islands are becoming less frequent, and we still have the caribou with which we can reestablish a population. This window is closing quickly, and something needs to be done before we miss our chance. If not, the next generation will be the one that watches this species go extinct, and there will be nothing they can do to prevent it.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.