NOVA SCOTIA CARIBOU – HOUNDED TO EXTINCTION (December 3/19)

In the spring of 1629, one Richard Guthry marveled that the area around Port Royal abounded in wild game and fish. Oddly, as the unofficial chronicler of the Port Royal settlement, Guthry mentions two game birds that according to biologists, didn’t exist in Nova Scotia at the time – phesents (sic) and wild turkeys.

Now the records show that pheasants were introduced here in the 1900s and Nova Scotia’s climate has always been deemed too inhospitable for wild turkeys. Yet here we have a 17th century historian telling us these game birds were abundant.

It’s a surprise also that Guthry neglects to mention two major game animals found throughout the province in his time – caribou and moose. These game animals were a major food source for the Acadians, thanks to the Mi’kmaq who introduced French settlers to the wildlife harvest there for the taking. So also with the Planters. In accounts about the Planters after the Acadians were booted out, you’ll discover that moose and caribou also were important food sources for them, along with small game animals, waterfowl and fish.

History for the most part is about wars and treaties and more wars, rarely about what people harvested and ate. Accounts of everyday life in the Annapolis Valley in the 17th and 18th century hardly ever mention how important wild game was as a food source. Take the caribou, for example. This magnificent animal, which often dressed as much as 200 kg and more, was prized for its flesh and for its hides; so prized in fact, that the caribou was hounded to extinction.

The destruction of the caribou: now there’s a story that never made the history books, not in any detail anyway, since historians prefer writing about conflicts. It took a long while to bring about that destruction – well over two centuries in fact – but men are persistent, accomplishing the destruction by commercial hunting for hides and by overhunting for the flesh.

During the centuries following the initial settlement here, few if any attempts were made at caribou conservation. Bag limits and closed season were non-existent, and caribou were killed year around with guns, snares, traps and dog. What it amounted to was ceaseless, unhindered slaughter for generations. The records show that even when it became noticeable caribou were vanishing, the slaughter continued.

It was until the middle of the 19th century that attempts were made to protect caribou. Interest in hunting big game animals as a sport had increased and the concern over the caribou’s depletion lead to forming the Game and Inland Fishery Protection Society. In 1862 the Society convinced the government to eliminate caribou hunting between February and August. At the same time a bag limit of five caribou per hunter was set. In 1875 hunting caribou with dogs was prohibited. In 1879 the open season was shortened by a month, the bag limit again reduced, and the use of traps and snares outlawed.

In 1896 a closed season of three years was set. The season was closed again in 1905 and was open off and on until 1924. By this latter year caribou had almost disappeared and the season was closed forever, the few animals left given complete protection.

Looking back, with hindsight as they say, it appears that caribou were doomed once the country became settled. Unlike moose, caribou were migratory, moving seasonally from winter to summer grounds. As Nova Scotia became settled these migratory routes were broken up. In the book Forest Life in Acadie, published in 1869, the author writes that the disappearance of the caribou “is the result of an increasing settlement of the country by man.” Progress, in other words, killed off the caribou, the wholesale slaughter simply speeding up the process.

The caribou is little mourned today and is rarely mentioned in the historical books written about the Mi’kmaq, the Acadians and Planters. It’s almost as if it never existed.

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