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Woodland caribou numbers diminishing

I often do animal programs for school age children, especially elementary kids. The young students are always very enthusiastic and interested in all things wild. They're pretty smart, too. Indeed, what with Xbox, cell phones and all other things considered, I'm always impressed with the high degree of "woods smarts" that our Northern Minnesota kids display.

In talking about members of the deer family, for example, students as young as first-graders are often able to name most of them - white-tailed deer, moose, elk and so on. Even the species of deer that don't exist in Minnesota, such as mule deer and the black-tailed deer, are thought of by these kids.

Sometimes, however, but not often, a little prodding on my part is necessary to get them to consider one other cervid, one that formerly called Minnesota its home - the woodland caribou.

For most of us, it's difficult to imagine caribou inhabiting the boreal and bog country of the northern third of Minnesota, much less, I suppose, any part of our state. But exist they did, and in fair abundance at that. In fact, from what I've been told and have read, historic caribou trails can still be observed crisscrossing through the Big Bog adjacent to the Red Lakes and between the towns of Kelliher and Baudette. The last known caribou from this part of Minnesota are thought to have disappeared by sometime in the 1930s, and perhaps lingering into the 1940s.

Like moose, caribou occurring in Minnesota represented individuals or populations at the southern edge of their range. As much as we like to consider northern Minnesota as the "Far North," to some plants and animals, northern Minnesota is really as far south as they like to be or can flourish in.

The natural history of woodland caribou is interesting. A herding animal, woodland caribou differ from their northern cousins in that their territories are smaller with fewer animals congregating during migration (typically from a few to as many as 50 or more animals throughout a territory 20-60 miles).

The word caribou is believed to be a French derivative of a Micmac Indian name for the animal: "xalibou," which means, "one who paws." Caribou hooves are wide, an adaptation for walking in deep snow, much like the wide feet of snowshoe hare and Canada lynx. As well, caribou often scrape through the snow with their front hooves in order to reach a favorite food of theirs - lichen.

So important are ground dwelling lichens to caribou, especially during the long winters of the Canadian north, that the animals feed on lichens for up to six months during any given year. And like other members of the deer family, woody browse from a variety of plants are also foraged on during the winter months.

Woodland caribou are magnificent looking deer. Males, called bulls, can reach weights of 600 pounds, while cows tend to be about half this weight. Similar to elk, bull caribou keep and defend from other bulls the exclusive rights of small bands of cows with calves - up to 10 or so - during the October breeding season. Seven months later, bred cows will give birth to single calves.

Other characteristics of woodland caribou are the amber-colored and impossibly large antlers that mature bull caribou carry. The brow tines of caribou antlers evolved to become large, shovel-like projections that jut wickedly, yet eloquently over their foreheads, while the main beams sweep behind their heads to almost their shoulders and then arching back over their heads. Sometimes "double shovels" grow to add even more immensity to a bull's rack.

Another interesting feature of the caribou is its nose. Broad like its feet, a caribou's nose appears to be more similar to cattle's than deer, elk or moose. In fact, no other member of the deer family has a nose as furry as the caribou's (perhaps an adaptation for extremely cold temperatures and for foraging in the snow!). Long legs, attractive coats, and a white belly, neck and rump, all add to the appearance of this fantastic looking animal.

Unfortunately, the population of woodland caribou continues, as it has for decades, a downward trend - even throughout its Canadian spruce-fir and cedar-hemlock boreal forest preferred habitats. Extirpated from most its contiguous United States range, except for some that exist yet today in the Selkirk Mountains of eastern Washington, northern Idaho and British Columbia, it is believed that only between 1,500 and 2,000 woodland caribou survive in Canada.

There are also remnant populations of woodland caribou along the North Shore of Lake Superior (Canada side). A handful of caribou, perhaps up to 30 animals, exist in Pukaskwa National Park. Larger herds are also present throughout Slate Islands Provincial Park, which is located northeast of Isle Royale. Plus, Canadian wildlife officials have reintroduced woodland caribou to other nearby locations with varying success.

As a result of their extreme low abundance and declining population, the woodland caribou is defined, in Canada, as a nationally threatened species. Reasons are undoubtedly numerous, including altered and diminished habitat, changing climate, mortality due to wolves, disease, poaching, parasites from white-tailed deer, and increased human development, to name just some. Even so, the woodland caribou persists, though just barely, yet within reasonable near driving distance.

The woodland caribou, once occurring in northern Minnesota, could perhaps, someday, make their way back into the Border Country once again. The Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, with more than one million acres of undisturbed forests and lakes, could very well be just the place for observing woodland caribou as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at