By: Barry Kent MacKay
I love Newfoundland, “The Rock”, as it is known in Canada. It is a huge island, the easternmost landmass in North America, and a place out of time, possessed of a cold, rugged beauty encompassing forests, rocky cliffs and shorelines, deep fiords, ancient mountains and bleak seas. It also has a bloody history of animal destruction. Newfoundland species and endemic subspecies of wildlife driven to extinction include the Labrador Duck, Atlantic Gray Whale, Newfoundland Wolves, Sea Mink, Great Auks, and the migratory Eskimo Curlews. Other species have greatly declined, most infamously including the Northern Cod (although, of course, the Newfoundland fishing industry and federal government, after years of ignoring all scientific warnings about overfishing, blame the seals for the disastrous collapse of commercial fish stocks – a collapse that continues to this day).
By virtue of it being an island, Newfoundland lacks many species that are common on the mainland, just over the horizon. These include such species as frogs and Ruffed Grouse, the Striped Skunk, Wolverine, Least Weasel, porcupine, jumping mice, White-tailed Deer and, well, the Moose!
Weighing in at 300 to 600 kilograms, the Moose is the world’s largest deer, and one of the most widely distributed, with 8 subspecies spread around the northern hemisphere, but not, originally, on the island of Newfoundland. That would never do, and so about a hundred years ago a very small number of Moose were moved from the mainland, and released in Newfoundland; a bigger target for hunters than the native, but smaller, Caribou. The third and final species of deer native to the nearby mainland, the White-tailed Deer, is even smaller than the Caribou, and also is not native to the island of Newfoundland.
In November, 2011, Canadian Boreal Initiative released a bulletin called Intact Habitat Lanscapes and Woodland Caribou on the Island of Newfoundland, by Dr. Jeffrey Wells, Dr. John Jacobs, Dr. Ian Goudie and Jonathan Feldgajer, which referenced research indicating that the Caribou, the one native deer on the vast island of Newfoundland, had decreased by two thirds.
This at a time when we are fighting to try to prevent planned lethal culling of Moose, the larger, and non-native deer species, whose numbers are burgeoning to the point that there have been many horrific collisions with automobiles on the island’s roads.
But here’s the catch, and the proof that we are dealing with a species out of control – not Moose, but us! The reason that Moose are increasing to a point where they are regarded a serious road hazard is the exact same reason that has been identified as the primary factor driving the caribou to endangerment, and that is the practice of cutting large swaths of timber. It’s even allowed in national parks!
In 2002 the caribou population was estimated at around 85,000 animals, but has now dropped to about 32,000 animals. Caribou need joining “corridors” of intact forest to navigate their migratory routes in relative safety from bears. Bears are nowhere near as likely to kill caribou as wolves, but they were wiped around 1913, close to when, in 1904, four moose from Nova Scotia firmly established that species on the island (there were earlier attempts, apparently unsuccessful). The coyote is not as efficient a predator of ungulates, but in the 1980s they established themselves by crossing the ice from the mainland.
Both Moose and Caribou are, of course, hunted for “sport”.
We are advocating a more nuanced forestry practice, including the protection of forests in national parks, and the establishment of protected forest areas that will contribute to fewer moose and more caribou. Moose might well have reached the island on their own, of course, it is just a quirk of ecological fate that they did not. But they should never have been wiped out. Wolves should never have been exterminated. Forestry management should be more nuanced, and regulated to consider the needs of caribou. Coyotes also benefit from deforestation. Saving Newfoundland forests from clearcutting would be a good major step in correcting a long history of bad decisions.