A tawny tide approached us along the shore of a small lake. Caribou – lots and lots of caribou! The herd flowed over the green hills like a living organism. They passed by, filing into a small valley beside a storage area for seacans and coreboxes. After drinking at a pond, they quietly bedded down side by side in a tight mass. The calves nursed and bounced around, and the adults slept or chewed their cuds. These were mostly cows, but scattered in the herd were young bulls, antlers dark with summer velvet. More caribou filed in until there were about a thousand animals along the lake.
As afternoon blended into evening, the land took on a golden glow. Almost as one, the caribou got up, stretched, went down to the lake to drink, and began moving off. But they were crossing the road, moving in our direction. It was too late to move away without frightening them, so we just huddled in the rocks. The herd split and a large number headed over the little hill where we were sheltering.
Caribou filed by below us and some stopped for a drink at a small lake. Then, a wave of caribou came up and over the hill. We could hear the bleats of the calves, replies from the cows, stomach rumbles, and the clicking of the tendons in their hooves. We could smell them, a sort of dusty barnyard smell. They passed by, paying little attention to us. There was no fear, no panicky running, just hundreds of animals moving as one along the hillside, many within a few feet of us. Some stopped to graze, snatching quick bites and moving on.
A calf approached its mother and nosed at her, soliciting nursing. He then turned and tried for her udder. She refused him, brusquely, actually jumping over him as he tried to nurse. One calf approached my camera lens, stepped over my outstretched legs, and moved on. His mother sniffed at the lens, and passed on by. There were a few rolled eyes but no panic, no fear. It was as though they said, “Just moving through, excuse us!” They clattered by, a living tide, the herd rejoining below a small lake, and passing through an exploration camp. Now the sun was low, backlighting the animals who passed in a haze of breath and dust, golden in the sunset. Twenty minutes later, there was not a caribou in sight, just a couple Pacific loons floating on the lake.
The Qaminuriaq caribou herd (often grouped with the Beverly herd for management purposes) is currently the largest and healthiest herd in Nunavut, though it seems to still be declining in numbers. It calves to the west of Chesterfield Inlet and northwest of Rankin Inlet, and migrates into northern Manitoba to winter. The Bathurst herd calves in the general area of Bathurst Inlet, migrates through the central barrenlands and crosses the East Arm of Great Slave Lake to winter in the boreal forest to the southeast.
In a disastrous decline, the Bathurst herd has gone from 400,000+ caribou to about 7,000 in the last 20 years. There has been some movement of animals east to the Beverly herd and west to the Bluenose herds, but there is no evidence of a large die-off of Bathurst caribou (no abundance of carcasses, bones, gatherings of predators feeding on dead caribou), just a rather rapid decline. All barrenground caribou herds seem to be decreasing in numbers.
On one summer project at a mine, close to some modular buildings and an airstrip, we observed a small herd of about 40-60 caribou, mostly cows and calves. They were hanging around grazing near the buildings, climbing over the water line, resting in the shade. One calf even climbed onto the porch and was nosing at the door of the building. Her mother grazed nearby, straddling the water line to the camp. Perhaps e they had learned to stay near the camp to avoid wolves - we saw them running on the airstrip several times, pursued by three wolves. Several big bulls tended to loaf around the mine’s portal, resting, chewing cud, or just standing in the shade. Huge ore trucks passed within metres, but the bulls were unfazed.
The old Tundra Gold Mine near Matthews Lake closed in 1987 and was abandoned. While the old mine buildings still remained, some 30 caribou found their way into one of the larger empty buildings. It might have been a former shop. This was caribou thinking outside the box, for sure. Considering the lack of shade on the tundra, it was darkish and it lacked blackflies, horseflies or botflies. The caribou usually spent the hottest part of the day inside, in the shade. At first the only access was through a man-door that had been left open. Later, we opened a larger door so they would not hurt themselves crowding in. As the temperatures cooled in the evening, they would leave the building, grazing in the vicinity or visiting local ponds and lakes. They didn’t appear to care about seeing people. They also used the miles of roads and the airstrip there. It was easier walking than the surrounding boulder fields and marshy terrain, and offered some cooling winds, and fewer bugs. The airstrip usually had to be carefully inspected by visiting pilots before landing.
On a visit to Pellat Lake, in August, we spotted herds of caribou several times, mostly big bulls, standing knee-deep in the lake, pressed tightly together. Up to 300 animals were grouped in a tight herd, not drinking, not eating, mostly just motionless, looking miserable. The caribou were avoiding bugs, and they were reluctant to leave the water even when we passed nearby.
Caribou seek the windswept tops of hills to rest in summer and flock to snowbanks where the cooler temperature discourages flying insects. Once, on a hike, we sat on a snowbank to cool off. Two caribou cows approached and joined us on the snowbank, standing just three metres away. They were kicking and twitching, trying desperately to avoid botflies. We counted 40 botflies around one of the cows, who ignored us. When the botflies started taking an interest in us, we left quickly. The two cows remained, shaking their heads and stomping.
Weird stuff eaten by caribou…..
At Bathurst Inlet one day, we were eating lunch on a hillside. A large bull caribou appeared, strolling along the side of a ridge. He stopped, nosed something on the ground, and picked it up. It was a tattered mushroom. The bull chewed, walked, chewed. Then he dropped the mushroom, took several steps, and turned and picked it up, to walk on, munching. Obviously, this was an object of value to him. But, never assume that mushrooms eaten by caribou are edible for humans.
Caribou often chew on shed antlers they find on the tundra. Due to rapid annual antler growth, most caribou (especially adult bulls) likely live in a constant state of depleted calcium, and chewing antlers helps replenish calcium.
Caribou will also eat meat, picking up dead ground squirrels and gnawing away. They don’t kill sik-siks, but there have been reports of caribou eating bird eggs and nestling birds as well.
Female caribou are the only members of the deer family with antlers. Caribou antlers begin growing in summer and are clear of velvet by October. The cows use their antlers to defend feeding craters for their calves in the snow in winter. Antlers are shed in springtime. Most females shed antlers by May, but pregnant females retain them until about the time they calve, in early June.
Antlers are different from horns (muskox, bison, cattle, goats, sheep). Horns have a bony core surrounded by blood vessels and supportive tissue, and an outside casing of keratin, which is a derivative of hair. Horns are not shed, they grow throughout the life of the animal and are nourished from inside. Sinus cavities extend into the inside of the horn.
Antlers consist of a solid bone structure nourished from blood vessels on the outside of the bone. A tissue known as “velvet” surrounds the growing antler. It is about ¼ to ½ inch thick, covered with short fine hair, and very warm to the touch. The antlers grow actively from the tips, which are soft and flexible. You can see where the blood vessels were in the antlers by looking for depression lines along the outside of the bony antlers.
Antler tissue is the fastest-growing known mammal tissue. A bull caribou can grow 1.8 metres of antler in the course of a year - an astounding 3.5 metres for a pair, plus side tines and shovel! And grown in seven months…..
In mid-summer, antler growth slows, and gradually stops. Blood vessels at the base constrict and blood is withdrawn from the antler. The soft “velvet” gradually dries out and splits, and the bull cleans and polishes the antlers by rubbing them on bushes, trees, or the ground until they are quite shiny and hard.
Hormonal changes ready the bull for the rut, which occurs in September or October. At that point, both sexes have shed the last of their winter hair and are revealed in all their glory, especially the bulls with short dark hair, white markings along the sides, and thick ruffs. Their antlers are bloodstained from loss of the velvet. All breeding occurs in a couple weeks, and then all goes quiet for the winter.
Bulls shed their antlers in December, and new antlers start growing immediately.
So, the saga of the caribou continues, this majestic animal of boreal forest, tundra and high arctic landscapes. What will happen to these species is very much linked to what humans do to the planet. All northerners know that our world will be much diminished by the loss of the magnificent herds.