From May 16-20, our community hosted nearly 400 biologists, policy-makers, First Nations, environmentalists, forestry, oil and gas interests to discuss the most recent scientific findings on the decline of woodland caribou across Canada.

An evening, organized by the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists, was dedicated to sharing information with the general public. At that session, Paul Kennedy, the moderator of CBC’s Ideas, referred to woodland caribou as the “canary in the coal mine,” suggesting that the disappearance of this species from parts of Northern Ontario and our Lake Superior shores, and across Canada, may signal a decline in the general health of the boreal forest.

Woodland caribou have been an important part of our local history. Original occupants of this region relied on caribou for survival. Local archaeologist Scott Hamilton took us back nearly 10,000 years, to the melting of a 3 kilometre-thick ice sheet, and the ensuing occupation of the area by the first nomadic caribou hunters. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts from such sites as the nearby McKenzie River prove a succession of occupations from a time when Sleeping Giant Provincial Park was an island.

Ted Armstrong, a retired local biologist, cited evidence to prove a dramatic northward recession in woodland caribou range in our region at a rate of 35 km per decade over the last 100 years – that’s 350 km in one century.Ê

Individual herds, such as the Wawa herd, disappeared over one winter in 1910-11 as the supply ship for mines in the area failed to arrive, and the miners survived the winter on the plentiful caribou. That herd is now extinct.

Armstrong reported that as many as 59 caribou at a time could be spotted on the Sibley Peninsula in the early 1900s. That herd is long gone due to human incursions: hunting, logging, and land grants for farming that cut off the herd from migration routes. The last Lake Superior remnant herd survives on the protected and human-free Slate Islands.

Art Rogers, a research scientist at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, enlightened us on the “secret lives of woodland caribou,” as video collars attached via helicopter netting enable us to view firsthand what they eat, how they deal with predators and insect harassment, reproduce and bear young, interact socially, and respond to human presence on the landscape.

Franziska von Rosen introduced us to a video series calledÊOur Incredible World, which has a six-part consideration of the woodland caribou aimed at school audiences. Complete with games and teacher lesson plans, it promises to be a powerful tool in raising awareness of our boreal neighbors and the role such creatures play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Does it matter that we pay attention to the issue of species recession, and possible local extinction? As famed biologist and Pulitzer prize winner E.O. Wilson states so eloquently, “Nature has no need of us, and can stand alone.” He cites the First Principle of Human Ecology: Homo sapiens is a species confined to an extremely small niche (in geologic time). It follows that human self-interest, (our longevity as a species?), is best served by not overly harming the other life forms that evolved alongside us, and still survive.

Woodland caribou may well be a marker of the wellness of the forest ecosystem in our own back yard. Relatively new pressures such as climate change may very well be the straw that breaks the caribou’s back. But if we manage our forests well, they and many other threatened boreal species may yet survive.

We commend the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists and their special guest speakers for reminding us that sharing our forests with fellow creatures in a mutually sustainable way, and understanding that relationship, is important.