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Gaspésie Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan (2002-2012)

Summary

The distribution of the Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) has declined considerably since the middle of the 19th century. In eastern North America, the Gaspésie population is now the only Woodland Caribou herd to be found south of the St. Lawrence River. This relict and genetically distinct population is in a very precarious situation, and was designated as an endangered species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), in May 2002. In September 2001, the Quebec government classified the species and its habitat as vulnerable.

In the 1950s, there was a minimum of 750 individuals in the Gaspésie Woodland Caribou population. According to the most recent estimates, the population now only has about 140 individuals. Historically, this population decline was primarily a result of hunting, and habitat loss linked to logging, mining and forest fires. More recently, caribou herds have had to deal with an added threat – the coyote (Canis latrans) – a new predator that kills a significant number of calves. Coyote predation, in addition to predation by black bears (Ursus americanus), is the primary cause of the current decline in the Gaspésie Woodland Caribou population. Although there are a number of reasons for adult caribou mortality, the survival rate (85-90%) of adult caribou is comparable to that of other caribou populations., The population currently ranges primarily within the boundaries of the Parc national de la Gaspésie (Gaspésie provincial park), and in an equivalent area of land adjacent to the park. As a result, the caribou are affected by human activities. The normal behaviour of caribou changes when they sense the presence of hikers on the summits. They spend less time foraging and resting, and more time monitoring their environment, walking and running. They also tend to abandon the summits for the alpine forests, where they are more vulnerable to predation.

The population’s activities are concentrated in three main sectors: Mont Albert, various mountains on the McGerrigle range, and Mont Logan, including land adjacent to the boundaries of the Gaspésie provincial park. The caribou frequently move back and forth between the alpine tundra and the alpine forest

A number of measures have been adopted to protect the Gaspésie caribou population. Hunting in the Gaspésie provincial park, which was created in 1937, has been banned since 1949. Furthermore, since 1977, forestry and mining activities are not permitted within the park boundaries. In order to limit predation on caribou calves by coyotes and black bears, caribou predator control operations were undertaken from 1990 to 1996, and again in 2001. A recovery plan was implemented from 1990 to 1995. A number of measures were also taken to restrict park visitors during critical periods for the caribou. Finally, a forest management plan was drawn up in 1999 and remained in effect until 2004; the new version is currently in effect until 2011.

Unfortunately, the caribou situation is still problematic. Since the discontinuation of predator control measures, recruitment has declined considerably, which justifies the development of a new recovery plan. The Recovery Team is proposing a 10-year plan, the key goals of which would be to establish a population of 150 caribou in five years and 175 in ten years. To this end, it is recommended that measures be adopted, aimed at maintaining calves as 17% of the total fall population. Two key priorities are identified in the plan: 1) the control of coyotes and bears likely to frequent the summits before and during calving periods; and, 2) a research project to study strategies relating to predator movement patterns and habitat use. Predator control will increase the survival rate of calves, and hence population growth. In the short term, the research project will enable us to develop better targeted control methods and, in the long term, identify habitat management strategies that will reduce interaction among caribou and predators. Current measures, aimed at reducing the extent to which caribou are disturbed by visitors to the park, will also be continued.