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Robert Sullivan
October 15, 1984
Ten thousand migrating caribou, meeting a river swollen as never before, followed their instincts to death in Canada
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October 15, 1984

The Torrent Of Death

Ten thousand migrating caribou, meeting a river swollen as never before, followed their instincts to death in Canada

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The questions came fast. Why had this happened? Why was the river so high? Why did it suddenly get lower? "All of those are the questions we would like to see answered," said Gregg Sheehy, conservation director of the Canadian Nature Federation, the Canadian equivalent of the Audubon Society. "Obviously the caribou have been using the same general migration routes for years and years and years. Why now?"

As the Inuit were quick to point out, there was an influence on the river that hadn't been there for years and years and years. In the 1970s Hydro-Quebec, the power consortium owned by the province, began building a series of hydroelectric dams in the north country. One was on the Caniapiscau headwaters, 275 miles upstream from Limestone Falls. The dam was completed in August 1981 but it was not until this past June—when its reservoir was filled—that controlled spills started. Hydro-Quebec released water at a uniform rate of 1,475 cubic meters a second, according to an agreement worked out with the Inuit leadership. Jean-Guy Quimet, a spokesman for the power company, pointed out last week that nature had let the river run at 1,800 cubic meters per second before the dam was built.

Still, by mid-September it was clear that the river was changed. Whereas nature creates its own flows and floods, the combination of man and the river, with its extensive system of tributaries, had the Caniapiscau running inordinately high. The recent rains had been more than twice as heavy as usual, but as Newfoundland-Labrador Wildlife biologist Stuart Luttich says, "The other rivers around here were all about normal." On Sept. 25 the Inuit called on Hydro-Quebec to cut its spillage, and the next day the rate was decreased to 730 cubic meters per second. All parties were satisfied. But in the wilderness, caribou were drowning—only no one knew it yet.

"Hydro-Quebec wasn't thinking caribou," says Luttich, one of the men who accompanied Blake on that first helicopter survey. "Caribou are a force of nature to be dealt with, and that royally ticks off Hydro-Quebec. The company would rather there were 300 caribou in the George River herd, not 300,000. You have to accommodate caribou, not because you want to but because they're part of the system. A man's orientation is toward simplicity, eh? And caribou make it more complex."

If Hydro-Quebec wasn't thinking caribou, few others were either. Jean-Paul Fontaine, speaking for Hydro-Quebec, points out that when the Inuit complained about high water it was because their fishing was being hampered, not because they recalled that this was the time of year caribou forded the Caniapiscau at Limestone Falls.

If one thing is clear in this wildlife tragedy, it is this: Man better help the caribou, because the caribou won't help themselves. Caribou, closely related to the European reindeer and found in Canada, Alaska and Greenland, aren't "stupid" as is often said. Rather, the caribou is a creature of firm habit. Its leisurely wanderings seem haphazard. But those trails are merely evidence of a deliberate, nomadic existence. During its life span of up to 15 years, a caribou is almost always on the move. "The George River herd ranges from the Atlantic to the shore of Hudson Bay," says Charles Dauphin�, scientific adviser to the Canadian Wildlife Service. "It's an area 1,000 miles wide and 500 miles north-to-south. Most of that area is occupied by caribou at one time of the year or another." The caribou's migration, while not as firmly directed as, say, that of the salmon's, is nevertheless purposeful. The caribou constantly seeks food, and not just lichens. In the summer it will munch shrubs, grasses and other vegetation to maintain its considerable weight.

Because the caribou meander so far afield, they often encounter rivers. They usually pose no problem. Even if they do, the caribou don't think twice before crossing, and they don't hesitate to return to a difficult ford the next year. "Limestone Falls has always been a dangerous crossing. There are many dangerous crossings," says Dauphin�. "But caribou come back to them anyway, and it's impossible to steer them from one spot. We've tried to drive them into the water to collar them, and the darned things are about as stubborn as you can imagine. The natives used to sit on a riverbank to spear them when they'd come across. The natives knew the migration route, and they'd just wait and kill them. And the caribou would still come back year after year."

Because caribou show so little interest in cutting their losses, it's fortunate that a herd is able to absorb them. At least 9,604 caribou (by official count as of Sunday) and probably more than 10,000 died at Limestone Falls, but that won't seriously dent the George River herd, one of the world's biggest. "The kill is large, for sure, but the loss is a small percentage," says Dauphin�. "That herd numbers more than 300,000 and grows by 12 or 13 percent each year."

Nevertheless, with man's increasing intrusions in the far northern reaches of the continent, the caribou must be closely watched. One Caniapiscau incident won't hurt, but several would. Rampant hunting after World War II threatened the herds of the Northwest Territory until conservation measures brought them back to strength in the early '60s. Simply because caribou exist in great numbers doesn't mean they're safe from man. Remember the buffalo.

Right now is a good time to consider the caribou's future, because it's being affected in a variety of new ways. The George River herd, and the human residents, for that matter, have recently been plagued by, of all things, the West German air force. Since 1980, German pilots based at Goose Bay, Labrador have been permitted to fly high-speed, low-level training missions over northern Labrador. Their F-4 Phantom jets—sometimes joined by others from the Canadian, British and U.S. air forces—thunder over the hills and lakes at speeds of as much as 600 mph at altitudes that are intended to prevent the planes from being spotted by radar. That means as low as 100 feet. Since Europeans don't appreciate that kind of activity going on just above their rooftops, a Canadian-German agreement was worked out to allow the Luftwaffe to train in the skys over Canada's barren North.

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