The Lost Reindeer
Majestic caribou once ranged throughout Maine’s forests, then they suddenly disappeared. Just what caused their demise remains a
- By: Virginia M. Wright
"I shot the last caribou,” Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby told a reporter in 1930. “It was at Square Lake, up in Aroostook County, not far from the Canadian line.” Maine’s legendary sportswoman, then seventy-six, reminisced from her cottage in Phillips, under the sightless gaze of her prey’s antlered head. “We had been roaming around for two or three days before we found the caribou. It was a small herd of nine animals. ‘Shoot, Fly Rod, shoot!’ whispered Dan [Cummings, her guide]. ‘Not until I see horns!’ I answered. The animals shifted uneasily, and this fellow’s head was outlined clearly. I fired. One shot was enough.”
The year was 1898. Soon after, Maine outlawed caribou hunting, but it was too late. “They vanished,” Crosby said. “There were never any more to shoot.”
This is a ghost story. From the end of the last ice age to the turn of the twentieth century, woodland caribou, or American reindeer, roamed the barrens, bogs, and forests of northern and eastern Maine. When they disappeared, quite suddenly according to some accounts, they left a legacy of place names (the city of Caribou, for one), and an enduring mystique. In 1908, a small herd scampering across the Mount Katahdin tablelands entered the mythology as the last confirmed sighting, but in fact hopeful reports of lone reindeer persisted for forty years (it was such an observation that occasioned the Maine Sunday Telegram’s interview with Fly Rod Crosby).
Dreams of restoring reindeer to our state were equally tenacious. Governor Percival Baxter was the first to advocate for “an experiment” in 1923, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the twentieth century that attempts were made. In November 1963, twenty-four adult caribou, snared by their necks as they swam across Newfoundland’s Lake Victoria, were transported to a remote area of Baxter State Park and released. Within a year, they had vanished without a trace. Between 1986 and 1990, a more systematic and closely monitored project again failed to resettle caribou, but this time there were carcasses to examine. They added an important piece to the puzzle of Maine’s lost reindeer.
Somewhat larger than the better-known barren ground caribou of the Alaskan tundra, woodland caribou still inhabit eastern Canada. They range north of the St. Lawrence River, except for a dwindling herd in the Chic-Choc Mountains on the central Gaspé Peninsula, 230 miles northeast of Fort Kent. With their wide-spreading antlers and enigmatic ways, reindeer captivated people long before they left Maine. “They are beautiful animals,” wrote geographer J. Whipple in 1816, “the colour of a reddish gray, much larger than the common deer — their gait, like the moose, is a prodigious trot, with the horns extended over the shoulders — the feet are very large.“ Those feet, Thomas Lincoln of Dennisville told John James Audubon in 1834, allowed caribou to run on crusted snow “scarcely hard enough to bear a dog. . . . The speed of this animal is not well-known, but I am inclined to believe it much greater than that of the fleetest horse.”
The word “abundant” has often been applied to Maine caribou of yore, but the picture that emerges from recently compiled historical accounts is more complex, says William B. Krohn, a wildlife research biologist who leads the Maine Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at University of Maine in Orono. Early hunters and explorers wrote that caribou came and went, finding them plentiful in an area for a time, then quite rare, says Krohn, who, with Christopher L. Hoving, has gathered such observations (including those of Whipple and Lincoln) into Early Maine Wildlife (University of Maine Press, 2010).
“After the glaciers retreated, Maine became increasingly forested, and woodland caribou never formed the gigantic herds of one and two thousand animals that we see in places like the uplands of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula,” Krohn adds. “Instead, the herds became smaller and more dispersed.” A large herd likely would have had forty to sixty reindeer.
Despite their nomadic existence, caribou were tragically easy to hunt because they gathered in open areas like frozen ponds, where they could see approaching predators. “By the mid-1800s, hunters knew this,” Krohn says. “Over-harvesting is definitely part of the reason for their extirpation.”
A conservation ethic did not exist in the nineteenth century, as veteran guide Dan Neal revealed in the same newspaper article featuring Fly Rod Crosby. Recalling an out-of-control party of hunters who gunned their way through the forest in 1895, Neal said, “They came down through the Dead River region and shot a dozen caribou. Nine more fell at Monson; five at Willimantic, and four at Bemis. Then the herd swung north, and that bunch followed and cleaned them out! Absolutely! They left fifty-two carcasses where they fell!”
Humans would have another, albeit more indirect, hand in the caribou’s fate. “The Indians have an interesting myth,” Krohn says, “which is that when the white-tail deer moved north, they polluted the ground and caused the caribou to die.” The story is intriguingly close to what biologists now know: Deer, whose spread northward was abetted by extensive logging and eradication of the wolf, carry a parasitic brainworm that doesn’t affect them but is lethal to caribou. The ghastly parasite, whose larva passes from deer droppings to land snails that are then consumed by foraging caribou, slinks up the spinal cord and mines into the brain. Synapses interrupted, the animal circles aimlessly as if in a stupor. It loses interest in eating and is unable to flee predators.
The disease’s devastation was demonstrated during the highly publicized 1986 caribou reintroduction project. Unlike the 1963 effort, this one was intended to be a “soft release,” meaning the caribou would be kept in an enclosure and given time to adjust to their new surroundings before they were set free. But, according to lead biologist Mark McCullough, the privately funded project was handicapped from the start as organizers rushed to import twenty-seven Newfoundland caribou before a suitable holding area had been found. Instead, the animals (minus two who died en route) were transported to a forested area on University of Maine’s Orono campus. It was a spot rife with deer.
Treated intensively with an anti-parasite medication, the caribou thrived at first and bore several calves. In spring 1989, twelve animals were airlifted to Baxter State Park, where they were released wearing radio collars.
After lingering to feed on some lichens, their favorite food, they bounded into the forest. By fall, ten were dead, victims of bear and coyote attacks, accidents, and brainworm. As infections spread among the remaining penned caribou, a decision was made to release them. One by one, they, too, died. Brainworm killed roughly half the animals released and was implicated in several predator kills as well.
In the end, there is no tidy explanation for the disappearance of Maine’s native caribou at the turn of the century. “It was a combination of factors — brainworm, over-hunting, logging, predators,” McCullough says. “We’ll never know which contributed most.” The role of humans, however, is inescapable. “The magnitude of our destruction just systematically wiped them out.”
- By: Virginia M. Wright