Harold Bennett used to marvel as he watched what he called a large herd of caribou in the graveyard near his home in Stephenville Crossing.
“They were so very careful in their travels, just moseying on through and never breaking down any fencing or knocking over headstones,” he said.
Bennett would enjoy going out and leaning on the fence and watch them feeding in the graveyard, some of them curious and coming really close to him.
That was during the winters of 2016-17 and 2017-18 but this past winter he said it was different and don’t know why. He hasn’t been seeing them herded up, just two to a half a dozen at a time.
Bennett said they feed a lot on the bogs, too. He is aware that some have been hit by vehicles and died.
“When caribou are around, you should be taking your time driving,” he said.
Wayne Barney, a senior biologist with the Wildlife Division of the Department of Forest Lands and Resources, said there are two theories about where this small group of caribou, estimated at 100 or less, might have come from.
It’s possible they might have stemmed from a group of 20 caribou that were relocated from the Middle Ridge caribou herd to the Port au Port area back in the mid-1960’s.
The other is this herd could be part of the Corner Brook Lake group of caribou that extend south of Deer Lake along the north shore of Grand Lake.
He said biologists know they winter north of George’s Lake and summer towards the Little Grand Lake region of Western Newfoundland.
“They seem to be discreet within their winter and summer regions,” Barney said.
He’s not surprised a lot of them are seen herded up together one year and not the next.
Barney said it just depends on where they decided to winter and whether that’s in a highly visible area or not.
“If it’s in a highly visible area and they’re herding the perception is that there’s lots of caribou,” he said.
The fact is they’re selecting areas where there is adequate winter forage for them and sometimes choose lowlands areas where there is less snow.
Barney said in recent years the slope in the decline of the caribou on the island of Newfoundland has decreased significantly, leaving room for optimism as some improvements in some herds has been detected.
He said it was in the early 1980s coyotes were first seen in the province, adding to the gamut of predators on caribou which also include black bears, lynx and bald eagles.
Predation events have been documented, however, the full extent of predation may be masked by other factors such as brain worm, high population levels at the time and a naive caribou population not used to predators; thus, making island caribou more susceptible to predation. Today calf mortality appears to be the single largest impediment to population growth for most herds. Calves that can survive to six months of age have the same chance of survival as the adults.
“However, given recent year improvements noted in some herds we’re (wildlife officials) cautiously optimistic caribou may have turned the tide here now,” he said.
Island of Newfoundland caribou:
Early 1900’s – less than 10,000 caribou.
Mid 1900’s to 1990’s – increased to 95,000.
Early 2000’s to 2010 – significant decline to today’s 28,000.
Slope of decline now stabilizing.
Large bulk of 28,000 contained in four to five herds including Middle Ridge located west of Clarenville and Northern Peninsula from Howley Lake to St. Anthony and along the South Coast. (Topsails, Buchans, Pot Hill, Grey River and Lapoile Cariobu Herds).
Source: Wildlife Division of Department of Forest Lands and Resources