A once-thriving herd of endangered caribou on a northern Ontario island is weeks away from being killed off by a pack of wolves, says a First Nation that is working with the provincial government to get the animals moved to a safe location.
Michipicoten First Nation said the woodland caribou population on Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior, which numbered about 680 four years ago, is now down to about 30.
In order to save what is left of the herd, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry announced in early December it would move some of the animals by helicopter to the Slate Islands — about 150 kilometres northwest of Michipicoten Island — "early" in the new year.
But that's not soon enough, said Michipicoten First Nation Chief Patricia Tangie.
"The caribou are the ones who are going to be wiped out if we don't do something and don't do something quickly," she said.
Tangie is worried that bureaucracy — the ministry has to put the bid out for tender — will delay the rescue. The ministry said the contract process will be completed "as soon as possible."
Michipicoten Island is largely a provincial park with the First Nation on the mainland. For many years the caribou thrived on the island — the herd itself a result of an experiment in 1982 when eight animals were moved to Michipicoten Island from the Slate Islands.
But four years ago, during a particularly cold winter, four wolves made their way to the island by an ice bridge that had formed — something the ministry officials said had never happened before.
By late 2016, the wolf pack had grown to 12, according to the ministry's numbers. Local officials, however, say that after this past summer's breeding season, the wolf pack has grown to 18.
The ministry caught the first four wolves, wrapped tracking collars around their necks and then let them go, in an effort to research the situation, Tangie said.
"They could have done something and they chose not to do anything," she said. "Why would you study the interaction of wolves and caribou? It's obvious to anyone — the wolves are going to eat the caribou. And they have."
The ministry disagreed with the chief's assessment.
"I think that people need to remember by virtue of the wolves being there is not necessarily an indication that this was going to happen," said spokeswoman Jolanta Kowalski. "The decision was made at the right time to do something."
She said they considered three options: move the caribou, move the wolves or kill the wolves.
"What gives the caribou the best chance is to move some of them off the island," Kowalski said.
Tangie, who is very passionate about the issue, said if the ministry doesn't act quickly, the community will have to take matters into their own hands.
"The caribou have a right to live," she said through tears. "We will take action and if that means we have to bring people in to shoot the wolves, maybe that's what we have to do."