column By: Terry Wieland | September, 19
It seems strange, as the years beyond 50 stretch into the distance, to realize I have lived through a complete lifecycle of a game population. If that seems like odd terminology, I apologize. I don’t know the exact game-biologist term. Regardless, I’m talking about the phenomenal rise and tragic demise of the Quebec caribou.
The province of Quebec is a huge land mass, twice the size of Texas and almost as large as Alaska. It stretches from the Vermont border in the south to the Arctic Ocean, from James Bay in the west to the Atlantic. This sheer size is difficult for the mind to grasp, especially since the greater portion has no roads or railways, just endless miles of lakes, rivers and forest.
Historically, Quebec has had three herds of caribou living and migrating within their own territories. The Leaf River herd is in the far north, on the shores of Ungava Bay; in the northeast, a smaller herd inhabits the Torngat Mountains straddling the Labrador boundary; in central Quebec lives the George River herd which, in the span of 60 years, grew from the smallest to by far the largest to – now – almost officially extinct.
The story of the rise and demise of the George River caribou is one of the strangest wildlife tales in our era. It’s a story with an undeniable end, but one which is so swathed in mystery that it will undoubtedly provide reams of biology theses for decades to come.
The herd is named for the George River in central Quebec, but that’s just a convenience since the vast majority of those caribou never saw the George River or came anywhere close to it. The problem with naming a caribou herd is that it migrates so far every year that it is impossible to pin down.
This herd traditionally calves in the spring on the windy slopes of hills in eastern Labrador overlooking the ocean, then migrates west throughout the summer as far east as James Bay, winters in central Quebec and returns to Labrador in the spring to begin the cycle all over again. The migration routes spread out like a fan, with the Labrador calving grounds a relatively small (in area) apex.
In the 1955 game census, the George River herd was estimated at only 5,000 animals but, for reasons never explained, from there the population began to expand rapidly. Was it climate? Was it sparked by a low cycle in the wolf population that allowed the caribou a running start? Or was it simply a mysterious cycle that has dictated caribou numbers – dramatically up and sometimes catastrophically down – since Man the Hunter has had a tribal memory?
By 1985, 30 years later, the herd had reached an estimated 750,000 animals and was regarded as the game management marvel of the age, although truth to tell, government game policies had nothing to do with it. Central Quebec became a major hunting destination. The center of the industry was the former iron-mining town of Schefferville – moribund after the Iron Ore Company of Canada shut down the mine but finding new life as a focus for salmon fishing in the spring and summer, and caribou hunting in the fall.
Thanks to the mine, there was already a railroad running north to Schefferville from the north shore of the St. Lawrence, and it had a new airport that would accommodate passenger jets. The town itself had all the necessary amenities, and from the Squaw Lake float-plane base, hunters and fly fishermen could be flown east, north and west to dozens of camps that dotted the lakes and rivers.
The local Montagnais tribe provided most of the guides while outfitters from Canada and the U.S. invested in camps with cabins, propane heating and generators. Hunters came from all over. The law allowed two caribou each, and the herd attracted meat hunters from Montreal, bowhunters from Pennsylvania and trophy hunters from as far away as Germany and Austria. In truth, it looked like an outfitter’s dream situation.
On my first trip to Quebec in 1986, I booked with Bob Foulkrod, a Pennsylvania bowhunter who achieved modest renown in hunting magazines, ran his own hunting lodge in Pennsylvania and was in partnership with a Canadian in a salmon and caribou operation. There were six of us from Texas, Montana and Ontario. We were lodged overnight in Schefferville in one of the empty company houses then ferried to Squaw Lake. There we waited for the weather to clear enough for the Otter to fly and paid $3 a cup for watery coffee and $8 for a hot dog. In centuries past, the coming of the caribou meant prosperity for the local natives, so in that sense, nothing had changed except the nature of the prosperity.
Our camp was on the Delay River, far to the west. We were packed into an Otter with our gear piled high down the center of the plane. Through the plexiglass, we could see the spaghetti strands of intersecting caribou trails crossing the tundra, intertwining in every direction. Obviously, there were more caribou than could be counted.
With six of us in camp, our limit was 12 bulls, and we got seven the very first day – a day of unbelievable luck. One minute there were no caribou, the next (during breakfast, to be precise) there were a half dozen swimming the river. From then on, they swarmed around as some of us went downriver in canoes, others went up, and all came back packed with antlers and meat. Over the next four days, we filled out the limit.
The next year I went back, but that time I returned empty-handed, having seen only a half-dozen animals (cows and a small bull) well out of range. No one could explain why. It was like the olden times of natives waiting for the migration that never came. There was no telling where the caribou would appear, or not. It was a good lesson.
By 1991, estimates of the George River caribou had topped a million, and biologists were predicting a crash. There were just too many for the range to support. There was discussion of removing the bag limit altogether, or creating a commercial packing operation with the Montagnais (for whom there were no limits) supplying the meat.
The basic problem for the herd was that the calving grounds were relatively small, and packing that many animals into the area caused serious overbrowsing. Reports were that the rocks had been eaten clean of lichen (the caribou’s main food) for 80 to 100 miles inland. When the herd left the calving grounds, it faced a major journey over terrain resembling the craters of the moon.
While the debates went on, nature took a hand. Was it lack of food? Was it climate that resulted in many more biting insects, the bane of all living creatures in the summer months? (That would be my guess as a lifelong survivor of battles with mosquitoes and black flies.) Whatever the reason, numbers began to drop – and drop, and drop. Down to half a million, then 100,000, then 25,000. The last serious estimate I saw was 12,000 and falling fast. No one knew the cause or what could be done. The fabulous George River caribou herd was gone, almost without a trace.
In 1986, I wrote my first magazine article about that first trip to Quebec. Who would have thought that, 33 years later, I would be writing that all those caribou were gone and that the herd was on the verge of being declared officially extinct? What’s worse, the Torngat herd is all but gone, decimated in the 1990s by an ill-considered attempt to create a commercial meat operation, and the Leaf River herd is declining as well. There is talk of ending all sport hunting.
To all intents and purposes, caribou hunting in Quebec is a thing of the past. At least I got to see it. And I’ll never forget it.