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Woodland Caribou

Despite all the wildness northeastern Country has to offer today, it is less than it was, and more than what the future likely holds in store. Take, for example, the woodland caribou. This magnificent creature once roamed the forests of northern Country. Now they are only a memory floating like wisps of smoke through the trees along long forgotten trails. Along with the caribou, buffalo, elk, and cougars have entirely or almost entirely vanished from Country. Without these, and other animals, our world is slowly becoming something tragically less than it once was. Imagine an orchestra playing a Beethoven symphony without the regal notes of the French horns, or the embellishments of the violins. With the loss of each section, the power of the orchestra to move the spirit diminishes; the score loses a bit of its magic. So it is with the natural world. We lose a piece of the grand symphony each time a species vanishes from our region.

Lichen-covered trees and rocks reminded me of the woodland caribou as I hiked the trail to Dovre Lake. Lichen is an important food that helped the caribou survive the cold months of winter. The woodland caribou, a cousin of the barren caribou of the far north, once inhabited the northern Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes region, and New England. Fossil records indicate they have inhabited North America for about 1 million years. Today they survive only in northern Idaho, as well as Canada, where they are widespread.

In his book, The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem, Miron Heinselman writes that around 1800 the woodland caribou ranged as far south as Mille Lacs and Kanabec counties. Woodland caribou were still fairly common in parts of Lake County and much of Cook County as late as 1885 according to Thaddeus Surber. Heinselman added that the caribou infrequently sighted today along the North Shore in these counties are probably wanderers from a herd in the Lake Nipigon region, about 150 miles to the north.

In addition to hunting, the loss of habitat is an important reason for the elimination of the woodland caribou from this region. They require large, stable, old-growth forests to survive. Forests disturbed by catastrophic fires or logging are not suitable habitat. We must protect remaining old-growth forests if there is ever to be a hope of reintroducing caribou into Country.

But there is another change in our ecosystem that stands in the way of bringing the caribou back: the increased range of the white-tailed deer. In all of North America, the ranges of these two members of the deer family seldom overlap. The reason is Parelaphostringylus tenais, a brainworm that attacks the nervous system of the caribou and the moose. The white-tailed deer carries the worm’s larvae with little or no consequence. Snails pick up the larvae when they travel over deer feces; caribou eat the snails and the larvae while grazing. Heinselman identified the Little Saganaga Lake region in the eastern BWCAW as having suitable habitat for the reintroduction of the woodland caribou because of its low deer density and the very low infestation of the brainworm larvae in deer feces. Until such time as the woodland caribou returns to wander the ridges and bogs of northeastern Country, we will have to rely on our mind’s eye to imagine them slowly picking their way through the trees.

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