Will the caribou ever return to its old haunts in Northwestern Ontario?
Maybe? There are still a few in some parts of the northwest, and a few in the east, too.
Once upon a time, the caribou was the most common game animal in Ontario—ranging all the way from the far north to the shores of Lake Erie and Ontario.
Their population in Canada was estimated to be about 2.5 million. But by the 1960s, this had fallen to about 200,000.
What animal are we talking about? The caribou often is called the elk. But there is another animal which is the “real” elk, and the moose used to be called elk, too.
This animal is a pretty good-sized one—much larger than our deer (a bull can go up to about 200 kg; a female maybe up to 150 kg or so).
This animal—the caribou—essentially is the same as the European Reindeer. Think about Santa Claus. You might remember his reindeer have antlers which sweep back from the head and then turn forward in a graceful curve.
The ends flatten out and have several sharp points, which point forward when the head is down.
The bull is a very fine-looking animal. Its main coat is quite dark brown. It has fairly long white hair from its throat to its chest, and some white on its belly and lower legs, too.
There are two kinds of caribou, the Tundra (or Barren-ground) one and the Woodland one. The scientific name is Rangifer tarandus.
The Tundra version is the light-coloured one, which often travels in huge herds and makes those monstrous migrations—some of several hundred miles, spring and fall.
The Woodland Caribou (our animal) generally lives in the northern forest, usually in the heavily-forested areas where there are lots of evergreen trees.
In the winter, if they move at all, they go from the forest to open areas, like big meadows or marshes.
One of the habits which enable the caribou to live in our part of the north is its liking for lichens, which are not the favourite of very many other animals.
The caribou is helped by its hooves, which are wide and are spread out. This means they are able to dig down, up to three feet, to get at the lichens under the snow.
Those big hooves also help it to stay on the top of the snow when it is quite deep.
The antlers of the caribou are quite pleasant to look at. They tend to sweep in broad circles. Besides the main part of the antler, there are two “brow tines” which grow from near the head and also point forward.
With its head down, the male caribou presents a formidable challenge to any adversary.
About those antlers–the female also has them—the only member of the deer family which does.
The caribou has gone from most of its range in Canada. It is no longer present in the Maritimes at all. Only a small fraction remains in Newfoundland, and a remnant in Ontario.
Here in Northern Ontario, we do have a substantial park, to the west of Red Lake, called Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, which is largely devoted to providing habitat for this animal.
It is pretty much considered to be extinct in the U.S.
The great drop in numbers is almost all because of logging. When the land is cleared for agriculture, or cut down for forestry, then the home of this great animal is gone.
And that is a great pity. We have lost one of our largest game animals, as well as one of the most impressive mammals we ever had.