Species At Risk

In the field

Collaring caribou – "each time is unique and incredible"

I never get tired of holding one of these magnificent animals in my arms.

Caribou collars with trackers that provide information about their movements and range use are an important tool for ministry researchers, helping them understand habitat use and population characteristics. Biologist Mick Gauthier recalls his vast experience collaring caribou in north-eastern Ontario.

Caribou are sometimes called the ghosts of the boreal forest – and they are real ghosts when they want to be. I have had the opportunity to be involved in fitting many satellite/GPS collars on caribou since 1998 and each time is unique and incredible. Because we use ground nets the experience is much more personal and up-close.

Ministry of Natural Resources staff and partner volunteers are usually involved in collaring work, which takes place in late February/early March when caribou tend to be less mobile due to snow depth. There are normally eight ground crew and two helicopters including a spotter. The target area is searched for fresh caribou tracks and feeding craters and once the animals are actually seen, a capture location is chosen. One helicopter keeps an eye on the animals while the second lands to drop off its crew. Then the roles are reversed as the second helicopter lands while the other monitors the animals. The ground crew erect nets which are large meshed nets two meters high. They can extend 100 to 150 meters through the forest in a shallow semi-circle. Once this is done the pilots are contacted by radio and the drive begins. The animals are pushed slowly towards the nets at first so as not to tire or spook them but once inside the outer edge are given a final push to drive them into the net. The animals are then tackled (no drugs are used) and once subdued their eyes are covered with a balaclava and their ears are plugged with cubes of soft foam. The helicopters move away or land to reduce the noise and ground crew talk and move about quietly. Once the animal is collared and samples are taken, the net is checked to ensure it is not stuck around the legs. The animal is then released.

At the end of February 2012, I had the opportunity to participate in a capture attempt on a small group of caribou north of Hornpayne (about 400 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie).

The terrain and forest cover make it difficult for the helicopters to land and drop off the ground crew but our pilots are pretty extraordinary. The first capture attempt was perfectly executed – except the caribou had their own idea. The two adult females in the group of four stopped ten metres from the net and turned back. The two bulls had evaded the net but the mature bull was relocated and driven to the net again. He had no trouble “bulling” his way through the mesh, which meant we needed to repair the hole.

We were not successful that day. As my biologist colleague John Sadowsky put it – “this job has its highs and lows”. The high was having the caribou so close and the low was seeing them turn and disappear – so close and yet so far!

Luck was with us the next morning as the first animal spotted was the mature bull. He was alone, but soon after, we located the two cows and the bull near a treed bog. Now we needed a site to land and set up the nets. There wasn’t much to choose from, but our pilot found a site and deftly manoeuvred the helicopter into position to drop us off.

The first group of us snow-shoed into the trees and started setting up the ground nets on the opposite side of the ridge. The rest of the ground crew landed and followed us in to assist with the remaining nets.

Once the nets were ready, everyone hid behind cover in front of the nets to await the caribou. The helicopters began their push and slowly drove the animals to us. The ends of the nets were marked with a bright red helium filled balloon to mark the capture zone for the pilots.

As the helicopters approach overhead, I watched for the animals to appear. My heart began racing as I saw them 10 metres out. The snow was deep as they bounded past. Once the animals were inside the capture zone, I moved further out to ensure that if they turned around I would be in a position to scare them back towards the nets. As luck would have it, they entered the “zone” where John jumped up and spooked them into the net.

There was no time to think now, just run on your snowshoes and capture them. Ministry colleagues Mitch and Bonnie were the first to get to them, and as the rest of the crew caught up the female caribou were soon subdued.

Even with two or three people restraining each animal, their power is amazing. You always have to be prepared for this surge of energy and must not relax your grip. The deep, soft snow really helps since the animal can’t get a good grip with their hooves.

The GPS collars were quickly put on, faecal and hair samples were collected, and the animals were safely released sporting their new jewellery. The mood of the ground crew and pilots sure was different this day from the previous day!

I never get tired of holding one of these magnificent animals in my arms. The experience of grappling with a live caribou is something you can never forget. I have yet to meet anyone whom I have worked with on these captures who has regretted his or her participation.