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Climate: Quick action needed in time of instability

Ecological time takes millennia. Minerals change slowly. Even biological time moves slowly – usually. Species come and go, over hundreds of years. So it is amazing to catch, as it is happening, the 11th-hour effort to save the woodland caribou from extirpation (local extinction) at their last outpost on Lake Superior: on the Slate and Michipicoten islands.

We have sailed to both island groups in recent years. Caribou seemed to be overrunning the Slates in 2014 and Michipicoten in 2015. So I was surprised to hear about the dramatic change, even though my study of climate change has led me to expect instability. What is the story?

Woodland caribou have inhabited the coastline and islands of Lake Superior for a long time. They are vulnerable to wolf predation and can only survive in areas of low wolf density. When ice bridges formed regularly between islands and mainland, caribou and wolves crossed and uncrossed frequently, searching for a better chance of dinner (wolves) or survival (caribou).

In recent decades, a lack of ice on Lake Superior due to the warming lake has barricaded travel to and from the islands, trapping current populations. In the winter of 2014, when thick ice made for safe crossings, wolves came to Michipicoten Island, and have been multiplying their numbers and eating caribou ever since. Wolves also essentially killed off all caribou on the Slate Islands, then died of starvation — all in a few years.

This spring, the Michipicoten First Nation began sounding the alarm that something needed to be done to save the caribou, which have long been part of their traditional diet and culture, and which are nearly gone from all the mainland as well.

Nothing happened for eight months, but just two weeks ago, helicopters descended onto remote Michipicoten Island. There was some fear that the caribou would already be down to zero, but apparently this had not happened. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources captured, stunned, transported to the Slate Islands and released seven caribou. It is hoped that they will regain their footing in a place that currently has no wolves.

Will this work? No one knows, but as Shawn Perich, editor of Northern Wilds, writes: "I think there are precious few people who live near Lake Superior that want caribou to disappear, even if we never encounter one ... I've talked to folks over the years who have travelled to the Slate Islands, often with sea kayaks, for the chance to see a caribou. While there will never be a stampede of caribou-seekers, they are certainly a unique tourist draw ... In addition, the native people of the North Shore have a deep-rooted cultural connection to caribou."

Others are skeptical. This winter is shaping up to be a colder one; what if another band of wolves crosses to the Slates this winter and has a heyday this summer? This story is unfinished, but so far it has taught us three things:

1. Instability and unpredictability are the hallmark of our time. Agencies are going to have to learn to act quickly if they want to avert disaster. This one may have come just in time. Isle Royale National Park has been considering relocating wolves to its park for many years, right through the virtual extinction of the wolves.

2. Actions must be taken even when there is not an economic return or an immediate reward.

3. We need to cross traditional boundaries to reach solutions. Now is not the time to stand alone. The Lake Superior watershed encompasses two countries — three states and one province — and a diverse ecosystem that will need management and protection.

Katya Gordon of Two Harbors is a member of the Duluth/North Shore chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby. She writes a regular column on climate change for the News-Chronicle.