Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
the land of gray ghosts

Today’s post comes from Shannon Walshe, a biologist at Wabakimi Provincial Park.

Looking through the trees, I’m sure these curious animals watched us as we paddled.

We know they exist, but they are so rarely seen that they are known as “the gray ghosts.”

Wabakimi Provincial Park is home to the elusive creature known as the Woodland Caribou, at the southern end of its range.

First hand experience

As a Wabakimi biologist, I consider myself very lucky to spend my summers researching such majestic animals and paddling around this magical place that defies description.

Entering the countryside generally requires a minimum eight-day canoe trip, flying or taking the train, and then paddling to one of the few road access points.

Aerial view of the park (water and forest)

On most trips to the park, I am lucky to see at least one caribou. However, I will share with you one of the most memorable moments I have had coming face to face with this creature.

A co-worker and I were in downtown Wabakimi, walking back from a patch of caribou habitat when we saw a caribou lying in the moss in front of us. We both froze and crouched down, making ourselves look smaller.

If they can’t smell you, usually what they notice is movement; However, this caribou knew very well that we were present.

We watched the caribou get up and slowly make a wide, complete circle around us so they could catch our scent. At one point, she approached us to get a better look before walking away.

They are as curious about us as we are about them and will often come check on you if they feel there is no threat. This chance encounter reaffirmed how important it is for us to ensure that caribou remain in this southern expanse not only for us to experience, but as a barometer of a healthy ecosystem.

Interesting facts about caribou

Did you know that caribou and reindeer are actually the same thing? “Reindeer” is the name given to caribou in Scandinavia and Russia, but they are the same species (fenced rangefer) wherever they are in the world.

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Caribou have scent glands at the base of their ankles, which are used when the animal is in danger. It will rise on its hind legs to release a scent that alerts other caribou to the danger it faces.

The caribou has large cloven hooves that support it when walking in deep snow or muskeg. These hooves also help them dig and open craters of up to a meter of snow to reach lichens on the ground.

Caribou belong to the deer family and are the only members in which both males and females have antlers. Females shed theirs just after giving birth in May or June, and males shed theirs after mating in November or December.

what does caribou eat

Caribou rely heavily on lichens that grow on the ground during the winter and summer months. In summer they will complement their diet with other herbaceous plants.

The lichen grows best in open stands of Jack pine or black spruce and regenerates best after an intense wildfire. These fires are important in providing future habitat for caribou; However, once the lichen is disturbed, its recovery can take a minimum of 40 years or more.

Ground covered in caribou lichencaribou lichen

During the winter, caribou can smell lichens under three feet of snow and will come down to the ground to eat them.

They will also eat black tree lichen (old man’s beard) that grows on black spruce trees in wetlands, where the trees are smaller and the lichen is much more abundant and easier to reach.

caribou calving

During the summer months, caribou disperse to islands and wetlands to calve. Normally one calf is born, but occasionally the mother gives birth to two.

caribou swimming,

This usually takes place during May and June, although they are known to remain on the islands once their young are born until September. One theory is that they go to these islands to avoid predators, mainly wolves and black bears.

Wabakimi: a place of protection

These shy and very secretive animals need large pine and spruce forests free of roads and other disturbances to thrive. It is estimated that an average forest caribou herd requires 900,000 ha of intact wilderness, which is approximately the size of Wabakimi Provincial Park (850,000 ha).

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One of the main reasons Wabakimi was formed was to protect the caribou and their habitat from possible development. This size was a minimum requirement to support caribou.

Caribou track in the sandcaribou track

“Caribou are barometers of healthy forests. If caribou are not doing well, that means our forests are in trouble and we need healthy forests to help sequester carbon, regulate the climate and mitigate flooding, to name a few of the ecological services they provide.” —David Suzuki

A species at risk

The Woodland Caribou is an iconic Canadian species that was once found in 80% of the country.

Today, their numbers are declining dramatically. At least half of the caribou’s range has been lost due to activities that disturb and fragment their forest habitat, such as road construction.

Caribou in the snow.Photo credit: Doug Gilmore.

These changes in the boreal forest make caribou an easy target for their natural predators: wolves.

Currently, boreal forest caribou are listed as “threatened” under federal law. Species at Risk Law, which means they are in danger of extinction. Fortunately, caribou are still found at the southern end of their current range within Wabakimi Provincial Park.

If you’re planning a canoe trip to Wabakimi, you might be lucky enough to see one while paddling through the park, or at least know that they’re watching you.

Research at Wabakimi

Our research involves surveying islands for signs of caribou calves to protect and designate certain areas as nurseries. Each winter, a transect is conducted through the park to determine where the caribou are and if they are using the same areas as previous years.

Bright green plants sprouting in a fire-scorched area.

Monitors with cameras are installed to determine the extent of caribou travel and use along certain canoe or transportation routes that could potentially conflict with recreational use. Fire habitat and regeneration are studied to ensure there is sufficient current and future habitat available.

How can you help

  • When in the park, avoid camping on islands. Travel quietly to reduce disturbances. This can also increase your chances of seeing caribou.
  • stay on existing trails to avoid stepping on lichen mats
  • Keep dogs on a leash so they do not chase or harass caribou.
  • If you see an animal, stop and watch instead of chasing it. Get a camera with a good lens and try to capture it from a distance.