Points North: The story of Minnesota’s last known caribou

Bill Peterson's photo of a caribou in Cook County.
Bill Peterson's photo of a caribou in Cook County.

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About thirty years ago, some former residents paid a winter visit to Minnesota’s North Shore. In the winter of 1980-81, Bill Peterson, then the DNR wildlife manager in Grand Marais, began hearing reports of woodland caribou along Highway 61.  The sightings were confirmed by a wildlife biologist who spotted two caribou during an aerial survey.

The animals were occupying a rocky ridge overlooking Lake Superior where windswept rock outcroppings were interspersed with stands of jackpines and other conifers. Growing among the rocks was an abundance of lichens often called “reindeer moss.”  When he went to look for the animals, Peterson found where they had been cratering, or digging through the snow to eat lichens. I talked to Peterson about the sighting and he said, “I went out there quite a few times before I saw one. When I finally did see one, I followed it quite a bit.”

Fortunately, Peterson was carrying a camera and took several pictures of the caribou, the first confirmed appearance of the species in Minnesota since the 1930s. While he saw the same animal again on another visit, he did not get the opportunity to take more photographs.

Along with Pat Karns, a famed DNR wildlife researcher, Peterson followed tracks in the snow and mapped out the caribou use of the area. They discovered the caribou stayed in the open outcrops, only entering the conifers to pass from one open area to another. Peterson believes there were more than two caribou in the vicinity. He says he’s heard of pictures that show a dozen caribou walking through a local fellow’s yard every morning. But, by the time Peterson tried to track down the photos the guy had moved. Even so, Peterson says he’s confident there were a dozen or so around that winter.

Where did the caribou come from? Peterson half-joking says, “From the north.” The nearest resident population of woodland caribou is due north in Ontario on the northwest side of Lake Nipigon near Armstrong. Caribou are known to be wanderers, so it is possible Canadian animals wandered into Minnesota and lingered on the Hovland hillside because they found favorable habitat—rock outcrops and reindeer moss.

Woodland caribou were native to much of northern Minnesota, but disappeared not long after the arrival of settlers.  They were also native to Isle Royale and migrated from there to Ontario’s Sibley Peninsula (the Sleeping Giant), disappearing from the island not long after settlers, itinerant commercial fishermen, arrived. Peterson says U.S. Forest Service records show reports of occasional caribou in the Superior National Forest through the 1920s. They lingered into the 1930s in the Red Lake bog.

The northernmost members of the deer family, woodland caribou can survive in bleak habitat conditions. Peterson says they can exist on food that will not support moose or white-tailed deer and can live in open bogs. They are susceptible to the whitetail-related brainworm that is fatal to moose. They do best at very low population densities which do not attract wolves, because they cannot tolerate very much predation.

To compare, Peterson says whitetail does give birth their first year and can produce twins or even triplets. Beginning in her second year, a cow moose can give birth to twin calves. Woodland caribou don’t give birth until their third year and always bear single calves. As a result, Peterson says, the loss of a cow caribou is a blow to the population.

While it may look the same, from a wildlife standpoint the North Shore was a different place in 1980 than it is today. The deer population was at a very low level (bucks-only hunting was the rule until the late ‘80s), which may also mean wolves were less numerous, too. At least, the wolves were few enough that the caribou could avoid them. And the most recent wave of settlers—urban migrants seeking 10 acres and the good life—had yet to arrive. Since 1980, several new homes have been built along the hillside and the deer and wolf populations surged. Now moose, numerous as recently as a decade ago, appear to be fading away in the Hovland area. The caribou haven’t returned.

Peterson isn’t completely sure of what happened to Minnesota’s last caribou. He expected them to wander northward after the snow melted and maybe some of them did so. However, he believes at least one of them was around during the winter of 1981-82. That year he heard a report of someone happening upon a road-killed caribou on Highway 61. Then a man drove up, said he was from the DNR, loaded the animal into his vehicle and drove away. And that was the end of the story. Wherever the man took the caribou, it wasn’t to the DNR.

As the Grand Marais wildlife manager from 1969-2000, Peterson heard a lot of reports of unusual animal sightings, including caribou. Some of those sightings he discounted, but others may have been true. A pilot known to be a good observer spotted a woodland caribou in the Greenwood Lake country northeast of Grand Marais. Peterson looked, but was unable to find evidence of the animal. He heard at least one other report he assumed was credible. As for physical evidence, the spring after Peterson and Karns mapped out caribou use on the hillside, someone found a shed antler there. He also has pictures of a deteriorated caribou antler found in Rog Lake (BWCAW, Seagull Lake vicinity) in the summer of 1983.

During the late 80s and early 1990s, I lived within walking distance of the hillside where the caribou had been. While I spent countless hours roaming among the rocks and conifers, I never happened upon any evidence of caribou—just the sign of deer, wolves and occasional moose. During that time, I watched human development expand...and shrink the wild forest on which I felt free to roam. It wasn’t long before there wasn’t room enough for a guy who likes to walk in the woods, much less a wandering woodland caribou.

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