Gaspé Caribou

par Gourbilière, Claire

Gaspé Caribou on Mt. Albert, © M. L'Italien/Parc national de la Gaspésie

In 2000, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada designated the Gaspé Caribou as an endangered species. The herd of Gaspé Caribou, estimated at a head count of 200 in 2006, is a remnant of the huge population of woodland caribou that roamed most of North-eastern North America until the end of the 19th century.  It is the only herd of this species still living south of the St. Lawrence River.  In spite of protection measures in place across Parc National de la Gaspésie ( today the main habitat of the Gaspé Caribou) the survival of the population is still threatened and remains a subject of debate. Preserving the species is an important issue, particularly because Gaspé Caribou is not only a natural legacy of the past, but also a key tourist attraction in the region. However, the many conservation efforts undertaken to protect what remains of the caribou population have had considerable impact on neighbouring species and the region's economy.

Article disponible en français : Caribou de la Gaspésie

The Woodland Caribou Today

Location of Parc National de la Gaspésie, © SEPAQ/ Parc national de la Gaspésie

The caribou (Rangifer tarandus) currently includes seven subspecies, of which only one is found in Quebec:  the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou). This species is characterized by the shape of its antlers and darker coloured coat.  The northern regions of Quebec are teeming with the species.

The Gaspé Caribou also belongs to the woodland caribou subspecies and is the only remnant herd still living in a natural environment south of the St. Lawrence River.  This explains the species' importance in terms of the region's biological diversity and natrual heritage and the significance of these arguments justifies conservation efforts being made to protect it. Long the subject of discussion and debate, the distinct genetic makeup of the Gaspé Caribou herd was confirmed in 2002.

In 1953, the first census of the Gaspé Caribou population established total herd numbers somewhere between 700 and 1,500.  Nevertheless, Gaston Moisan, the researcher responsible for managing herd head counts, made it clear that the lower figure was probably the more accurate one.  Since that time, the population has been steadily declining. Before a number of conservation measures were implemented, the population reached its lowest point in 1999, dropping to an estimated 96 members. The new measures enabled the population to increase to some 200 members.  The Gaspé Caribou's habitat covers an area of about 1,345-km² (520 mile2), which includes all of the Parc National de la Gaspésie's 802-km² (310 miles2) of park territory.


The Unique Habitat of the Gaspé Caribou

On Mt. Albert in the alpine tundra, © D. Desjardins/ Parc nationale de la Gaspésie

The Gaspé Caribou lives in a mountainous environment and its habitat is divided into three main areas:  In the Chic-Choc Mountains, particularly on Mounts Albert (1,154 m/ 3,786 ft) and Logan (1,150 m/ 3,773 ft)), and in the McGerrigle Range.  Very little interaction between the three herds has been observed. The various vegetation zones of the highland massifs includes a number of widely diverse habitats. As a consequence, the herd does not migrate, but instead frequently moves to different altitudes depending on the season.  For example, when in heat, the herd gathers in the alpine tundra where battles between males take place.  The Gaspé Caribou seems to appreciate bare peaks, where it is easier to observe fellow herd-mates and keep an eye out for predators.

Its coat is dark brown in summer and takes on a grey hue with a mantle of white hair in winter.  Both males and females sport antlers that are tall, slender flat and compact, which form its crest.  These antlers fall off every year at different times, depending on the animal's gender.  The caribou's large, crescent-shaped hooves enable it to walk in the snow without the slightest difficulty.

  “The one who paws the earth in search of food,” © C. Isabel/ Parc nationale de la Gaspésie

The Gaspé Caribou is a large cervid, measuring between 1 m [3 ft] and 1.4 m [4.5 ft] in height at the shoulder and weighing between 120 and 170 kg [265-375 lbs].  The word caribou comes from the Micmac "xalibu" which means "the one who paws the earth in search of food."  In summer, the caribou feeds on ground lichens, grasses, moss, and other plants that it manages to uncover.  In winter, when the snow becomes a layer of ice that prevents it from scratching at the earth, the caribou heads toward the sub-alpine forest levels where it feeds on tree lichens. The disappearance of winter browsing areas is a major issue for caribou conservationists. Currently, there are enough tree lichens only on the century-old trees in the ancient conifer forests whose numbers are continually decreasing due to contemporary logging practices.


Traditionally a Treasured Natural Resource for the Native peoples

Drying of caribou meat, an essential food resource, © SEPAQ/ Parc national de la Gaspésie

The caribou hunt has long been an integral part of the cultural practices of the various Native peoples of Northern Quebec (Inuit, Cree, Naskapi and Montagnais).  Without it, survival in the north would have been very difficult indeed.  Certain tribes followed the caribou herds all year long, while others mainly hunted them at the end of the summer.  Caribou fur provided bedding and warm clothing.  The rest of the hide was used to make light, warm, supple clothing as well as tent materials.  Snowshoes were made using caribou sinews and leather thongs and the meat nourished both humans and dogs.  Nothing was wasted: bones were used to make needles and utensils; tools were produced from the animal's antlers; thread from its tendons; and the fat was melted down into valuable fuel, which would offer light and warmth during the long winter months.

The English Canadian hunter P. Chubb, accompanied by his two guides, © SEPAQ/ Archives du Parc national de la Gaspésie Provincial [Park Archives]

When the Europeans arrived, it seems that the caribou populations were still abundant throughout the region.  Even if the old data only provides approximate figures, one thing remains perfectly clear: the eastern herd populations began declining during the 19th century and continued to do so well into the 20th century, as logging and agricultural development gradually destroyed habitats.  Hunting carried out to feed a growing human population caused the numbers of caribou to decline even more.  The woodland caribou disappeared from Prince Edward Island by 1873, and in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia the species became extinct around the 1920s.  And so, mountainous and rocky terrain that was unsuitable for agriculture or other forms of human development became a refuge for the caribou.  However, even on the Gaspé, the cervids were not completely out of reach of invasive human activity, for hunting and fishing clubs began to emerge by the end of the 19th century. These organisations attracted both old dominion English Canadians, as well as Neo-Canadian elite and hunting and fishing enthusiasts who were drawn to the area because of the region's abundant supply of salmon, caribou and moose.


A Threatened Sub-species

Recently, new threats have put additional pressure on the Gaspé Caribou.  The species' long-standing predator is the black bear, but with the arrival of the coyote in the park during the 1980s, the mortality rates of caribou fawns has increased significantly.  Caribou calving takes place at the end of May, and the fawns remain vulnerable until the beginning of autumn.

The coyote, a formidable predator, © SEPAQ/ Parc national de la Gaspésie

Human beings are also partially responsible for the indirectly harming caribou populations.  On the one hand, the logging of the mature conifer forests in the park's peripheral areas has altered the ecological balance and affected forest renewal.  Pioneer plants, including berry shrubs, have proliferated in the large clear-cut spaces, causing the increase of bear and coyote populations.  Another disastrous consequence of the logging is that tree lichens no longer have the mature wooded stands on which they can grow, thereby causing the caribou's necessary foraging supplies to dwindle.

Moreover, the very fact that people visit the peaks of Parc Nationale de la Gaspésie affects the animal's behaviour.  The caribou become more wary.  Sensing a threat, they are more likely to walk or run, meaning that they forage and rest less.  They take refuge in the forests where they can camouflage themselves, thus becoming much more vulnerable to predators.


Establishing Protection Measures 

A number of measures have been established to protect the animal. The Parc National de la Gaspésie was created in 1937, and caribou hunting has been banned south of the 50th parallel since 1949.  Caribou populations have continued to plummet in spite of these measures.  The total population of the tiny, isolated herd living in the Gaspésie-Atlantic region dropped from its 1950s numbers of about 700-1500 to approximately 200 head in the 1970s.  However, during the 70s, there was a new focus on protecting the cervid's habitat, and so, in 1977, all forms of mining and logging were banned within the confines of Parc National de la Gaspésie.

Aerial surveillance operation, © C. Isabel/ Parc nationale de la Gaspésie

In 1990, an initial recovery plan, which focused on controlling predators and limiting disturbances, was launched. From 1990 to 1996 and then again in 2001, predator-control operations designed to protect caribou fawns were implemented.  Measures to supervise visitor activity and raise their awareness of the conservation issues at stake were also put in place during key periods, so as to manage visitors in favour of the park's species preservation policies.

For the last 20 or so years, annual aerial surveys have been carried out so as to ensure the survival of the population.  Although not an exact science, this is the only method that can be used to estimate the number of individuals and track the evolution of the population.  Between 1998 and 2001, the Société de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec [Quebec's Parks and Wildlife Association] (FAPAQ), in conjunction with various regional organizations, set up a satellite telemetry program [a system that uses satellites linked to electronic tags used to monitor the animals to which they are attached] to monitor 26 caribou.  Aerial surveillance of the territory was carried out every two weeks.  The program made it possible to better understand caribou movements, thereby identifying sites outside the park that needed to be protected.  In 1999, following an agreement between Quebec's Ministère des Ressources Naturelles [Ministry of Natural Resources] and the FAPAQ loggers were presented with a set of operating procedures that were less intrusive to caribou populations in certain areas  outside the Parc National de la Gaspésie.

The caribou's situation has remained problematic in spite of all these measures.  As a consequence, a new recovery plan (2002-2012) was established, with a view to increasing the caribou population to 150 individuals in 2007 and then further increasing it to 175 in 2012. In order to reach this objective, two courses of action have been undertaken: the first monitors the presence of bears and coyotes on the peaks just before and during calving season; the second establishes a research program aimed at developing long-term habitat development strategies that will limit interaction between the caribou and their predators. The initial results of the plan seem to have been conclusive, as the project succeeded in reaching the initial phase objective of 150 caribou in 2007.  

The park has also started offering activities aimed at raising the public awareness of visitors. Through talks, publications and guided tours, visitors are informed about caribou-conservation issues and the importance of the already established measures.  An innovative new exhibit was set up in 2007. The information on display is distributed over a wide circuit; starting in an exhibit hall, visitors are led outside along a ridge to the top of Mt. Jacques-Cartier.


Protection Issues

Hiking on Mt. Albert, © M. L'Italien/ Parc national de la Gaspésie

Legislation defining the status of the Gaspé Caribou was first passed in April of 1984.  At the time, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the Gaspésie-Atlantic herd populations as "threatened."  In May 2000, the status of the species was changed to "endangered."  Since 2001, the Quebec government has assessed the population and its habitat as vulnerable.  Quebec's Loi sur les Espèces Menacées et Vulnérables [Act for Protecting Threatened or Vulnerable Species] prohibits the harming such species, bans ownership of or trade in the species, as well as outlawing the destruction of its habitat.

A number of questions have arisen concerning these caribou-conservation initiatives: how much should predators be controlled? Why should the forest adjacent to the park be managed differently? In the larger scheme of things, would the disappearance of the caribou in itself really matter?  In all actuality, the plight of the caribou raises certain ethical questions, especially as regards the role humans might play in the conservation of a given species.  From the heritage conservation perspective, the answer is unequivocal:  the Gaspé Caribou population is a remnant that testifies to the culture and history of the Gaspé which must be protected.  The notion of biodiversity is also an issue, for humans should no longer passively let species die out without intervening-especially since past human behaviour is the cause of the present imbalances. There are other motives behind these conservation initiatives as well. The caribou herds are a major tourist attraction that not only offer support to the region's struggling economy, but it also draws additional visitors to Parc National de la Gaspésie.

A number of people who believe that predator control can be no more than a temporary solution are currently studying the possibilities that could result from managing the area differently.  For instance, a more sustainable management of the forests adjacent to the park would foster  OLD FOREST REGROWTH and re-establish an ecological balance between the caribou, its predators, its food sources, and human beings.


Claire Gourbilière

Fifth-year student at the École Nationale d'Ingénieurs de l'Horticulture et du Paysage (France)
Environmental Engineering Major

A special thanks to Claude Isabel, Head of Conservation and Education , Parc National de la Gaspésie



Comité de rétalissement du caribou de la Gaspésie, Plan de rétablissement du caribou de la Gaspésie (2002-2012) (Rangifer tarandus caribou) - Mise à jour, Québec, Société de la faune et des parcs du Québec, Direction de la Faune, 51 p.

Courtois, R., L. Bernatchez, J.-P. Ouellet et L. Breton, Les écotypes du caribou forment-ils des entités génétiques distinctes?, Société de la faune et des parcs du Québec, Direction de la recherche sur la Faune, 2002, 35 p.

Crête, M., R. Nault et H. Laflamme, Plan tactique : Caribou, ministère du Loisir, de la Chasse et de la Pêche, Direction de la gestion des espèces et des habitats, 1990, 73 p.

Fournier, Nelson, et André Beaulieu, « Le caribou de la Gaspésie - Notre patrimoine naturel », Gaspésie, vol. XXXVI, no 3 (hiver 2000), p. 15-18.

Messier, F., J. Ferron et J.-P. Ouellet, Le caribou du parc national de la Gaspésie : connaissances et recommandations sur la gestion du troupeau. Ministère du Loisir, de la Chasse et de la Pêche, Direction de la faune terrestre, 1987, 65 p.

Sirois, Luc, et Jean-Pierre Ouellet, « Le caribou gaspésien et les enjeux de la conservation de ses habitats », Gaspésie, vol XXXV, no 2 (automne 1998), p. 38.

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