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Reindeer Games: Tracking Caribou in the Slate Islands

Happy coincidence for wildlife-loving paddlers: Canoes and woodland caribou converge like nowhere else on Earth in Ontario's Slate Islands. PLUS: See video of caribou on the move.

Morning brings more caribou, a lesser bull and a few cows browsing our fire pit, now stocked with fresh ashes from a breakfast campfire. The group pays little attention to us. It’s not that the Slates’ caribou are accustomed to people, but with no hunting and after 100 years without natural predators, they seem to have forgotten fear.

Oddly, the biggest threat to Slates’ caribou are unintentional, yet self-inflicted, hangings. They crane their necks for high-hanging lichens, in a desperate search for winter food, and they become entangled in branches or tree crotches and can’t escape. Hundreds strangled themselves in the bitter cold of 1996.

To learn more about the lives of Slates’ caribou, Layne and I rendezvous at Jacks Bay on day three with a team of five biologists who study the herd. Team leader Steve Kingston is a 30-something, red-haired ecologist who looks like a young Robert Redford. He’s here to check vegetation exclosures–areas excluded from caribou grazing by fencing. These allow researchers to compare the luscious forest floor inside with the heavily grazed ground outside. The study tackles a popular hypothesis for why the Slates’ caribou population booms and busts.

“Our question is: Do the caribou eat themselves out of house and home, or is it something else?” he explains.

Kingston’s research will inform a provincial recovery plan for woodland caribou, listed as a threatened species by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The plan identifies five caribou recovery zones, including one along the Lake Superior coast that may be stocked with animals relocated from the Slate herd.

The researchers camp nearby, and over wine I ask one final question. “Why in the world did that caribou eat the ashes from our fire pit?”

“Salt?” offers one of the biologists. “Potassium?” says another. “Potash?” “Digestive aid?” Each scientist has a different theory. But they all agree: Mainland caribou don’t eat campfire ashes, so the Slate caribou must have adapted that trait on their own.
Back at camp, we commemorate our final evening with fresh-caught lake trout, chocolate bars, hot tea, and a warm fire. Just as I toast our resounding success of 20 caribou sightings, the smoke summons the bull for one last encounter. He materializes from the dark to stomp out the smoldering embers, gobble up the ashes like a kid going at a plate of mac n’ cheese, and kick in the rocks of our fire ring for good measure. It’s bizarre, but now oddly routine.

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