Thursday, January 26, 2012

Following the Caribou

What's the difference between a caribou and a reindeer? The truth is, it depends which side of the fence it's on. They're the same species, Rangifer tarandus; a reindeer is simply a domesticated caribou. The caribou is a member of the deer family that is found in Arctic and Subarctic regions, and can be either migratory or resident. Although caribou were once common as far south as the state of Maine, where efforts to reintroduce them have been unsuccessful, Newfoundland is now home to the world's southernmost remaining wild herd of these animals.
In my travels on the Avalon Peninsula, I frequently see small groups of caribou, up to 20 or 25 animals, on the barrens near Trepassey and St. Shott's, and also near St. Bride's. These two areas are part of the Eastern Hyper-Oceanic Barrens, and provide great opportunities for viewing since there are few trees apart from small clumps of tuckamore. In the spring, the caribou are easy to spot since their pale winter coats and stand out against the landscape even at a distance.
Both males and females produce antlers, but those of the males' antlers are more robust and graceful. As the summer progresses, the animals' coats go through a stage of shedding and regrowth when they can look decidedly disreputable, like the stag pictured below. The small grazing groups we see at this time of year usually consist of a large male and several females and immature males. The females often have calves with them, although these young animals are especially vulnerable to coyote predation. Caribou are relatively docile and don't spook easily. We sometimes encounter them on the road and they aren't inclined to either startle or get out of the way. If there's a caribou in the road, motorists often stop for pictures and the animals seem more than willing to pose for a snapshot. They'll wander along the center line of the road contentedly, ignoring any threat from passing traffic. Fortunately, most motorists are willing to stop and enjoy the event instead of pushing to get past.
By late summer, the caribou start to look their best; their dark summer coats have grown in completely and all traces of the pale winter coats are gone. The males' antlers are at their most spectacular, just in time to attract attention and fend off competition during mating season. They can be more difficult to spot at this time of year, since their coats blend in against the changing colours of the landscape. In early summer the barrens are green, but as the year progresses the vegetation begins to take on golden and reddish tones. This change enhances the outlines of the sweeping hills and streambeds, creating dramatic fields of warm colour broken by rocky outcrops and highlighting the sapphire-blue ponds.
There are still places in Newfoundland and Labrador where it's possible to see caribou by the thousands -- the George River herd, for example, is estimated to contain about 50,000 animals. This is a drastic reduction from the last census, however; the herd has declined from 380,000 animals in 2001. Once plentiful in Newfoundland and Labrador, the caribou is now under pressure from increasing settlement, more human presence on the land, and a growing coyote population. In addition, an older problem resurfaces in cycles: a disease commonly known as brain worm and caused by the nematode Elaphostrongylus rangiferi. The introduction of this nematode was the unintended consequence of an attempt to improve the Newfoundland caribou herd: in 1908 a herd of 300 reindeer was brought from Norway to St. Anthony and small groups of them were herded to various parts of the island. The native caribou population at the time was actively hunted for food, and numbers had declined significantly. It was believed that the introduction of these Norwegian caribou would not only help to increase those numbers but improve the quality of the stock; instead, the introduced animals were hosts to the brain worm nematode and its effects spread across the island in the areas the new animals crossed. The native caribou population has never fully recovered from this accidental introduction.

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