The Ontario government has launched an operation to relocate an endangered herd of caribou off the remote island on which they have been systematically hunted down by recently arrived wolves.
The operation, which began on Saturday and is described by government officials as a “delicate dance”, involves rounding up the remaining caribou off Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior and transporting them by helicopter to the nearby Slate Islands.
Officials with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said they hope the relocation will allow the herd a chance to rebuild, adding the desire is to see the animals one day return to Michipicoten.
No one can seem to agree on the extent of the damage to the caribou population, with community members, government officials and ministry researchers all offering different estimates about the size of the remaining herd. All agreed, however, that intervention was necessary.
Michipicoten First Nation Chief Patricia Tangie, who has argued that the government waited too long to take action, also called on intangible forces in order to protect the animals she feels are vital to the community.
“We request assistance from the spirit world for the protection of the caribou and the longevity of those relatives so that future generations can see them,” she said, adding she and other residents performed a pipe ceremony the day before the move in order to seek the animals’ permission for the relocation.
Trouble began for the Michipicoten caribou in late 2013 or early 2014 when the waters around the island froze over, creating a rarely formed ice bridge to the mainland. Four wolves took advantage of the conditions and trekked 15 kilometres to the island, where they found a thriving herd of nearly 700 caribou.
Today, government officials estimate the herd has dwindled to about 100, a figure disputed by Tangie who pegs the number between 20 and 30.
Ministry officials have visited the island to collar wolves and study their interaction with the caribou, an approach that Tangie criticized as she pushed for more direct action to save the herd.
The long-sought government move, which will take place over the next few days, is a complex affair involving four helicopters and several ministry officials and researchers.
One “capture” helicopter will hover metres above the ground to herd and target caribou, according to a protocol for the move obtained by The Canadian Press. Officials will focus on rounding up healthy, mostly female animals, but hope to include at least one bull.
One of the members of the capture crew will lean out of the chopper with a specialized “net gun” and fire a basket at the caribou with the hopes that the netting hits the back of the animal.
“If placed correctly, the animal’s legs will rapidly tangle in the net,” the protocol reads.
A small team including a veterinarian and handler will tie the caribou’s legs together, put on earplugs and place a blindfold over its eyes in a bid to keep it calm.
“A blindfold really calms them down. It’s like having a puppy, they’ll put their head in your lap,” said Art Rodgers, a research scientist working with the ministry on the move.
The veterinarian will examine the caribou and if it’s healthy, take hair, blood and fecal samples and then fit it with a tracking collar. Caribou will be placed in bags with just their heads sticking out and then sedated.
Two caribou at a time will then be moved inside a transport helicopter for the trip to the Slate Islands, which should take from 45 minutes to an hour.
On the other end, the veterinarian will reverse the sedation and monitor the caribou as it recovers.
The animals will then be left to roam in an area free from predators, where it is hoped they will mate with other caribou on the Slate Islands and repopulate the herd.
The move is not without controversy among those who pushed hardest for it. The ministry rejected a request to allow an observer from the First Nation to ride along during the relocation, citing health and safety for both humans and caribou.
“We are limiting the number of people on the flights … to reduce stresses on the animals, to leave room if transportation needs change for the animals, to limit weight and fuel consumption,” said ministry spokeswoman Jolanta Kowalski. “The only people allowed on the flights are those with a direct role in the operation.”