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Former UMFK faculty member's study aimed at preventing Gaspé Caribou from going extinct

November 19, 2004


A study examining the diets of an endangered species of Caribou found in the Gaspé region of Quebec and begun by a former University of Maine at Fort Kent faculty member during his tenure on the St. John Valley campus, is calling for timber harvesters to carefully plan logging activities in the area to help prevent the extinction herd.

David Smith, a former assistant professor of biology and environmental studies at UMFK, who is currently on faculty at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba, conducted the four-year study with field assistance from UMFK students and financial support through University of Maine System research and development funds.

The project studied the Gaspé caribou population that inhabits the mountainous area adjacent to Parc de la Gaspésie, Québec on the Gaspé Peninsula in southeastern Québec, located about four hours northeast of Fort Kent.

Over the last decades numbers of caribou in this population have declined steadily from 700-1500 in 1953 to 143 in 2003.

Gaspe caribou are remnants of the caribou population that once extended south of the St. Lawrence River through Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. Caribou have been wiped out from the vast majority of their former range south of the St. Lawrence River.

The study led by Smith, specifically examines the composition of seasonal caribou diets through the analysis of 151 fresh fecal samples collected during the summers of 1999 and 2000 and during the winter of 1999/2000.

Several UMFK students participated in this initial phase of the project including environmental studies students Jeremy Ray of Waddy, Kentucky, a member of the class of 2003 and Kevin Hodgson of Grand Isle, a member of the class of 2002.

The plant fragments in the samples collected by Ray, Hodgson and others were identified to species if they made up a major portion of the caribou diets.

The examination conducted by Smith showed that lichens represent an important part of the caribou's diet.

"Lichens are an important source of food for Gaspe caribou. The clearcuts that surround the Parc de la Gaspesie contain very few lichens. The study will strengthen the case for the promotion of logging practices that will not cause the extinction of the Gaspe caribou herd," said Smith. "Forest managers must carefully plan logging to preserve lichen for caribou. The population is currently listed as an endangered species. Gaspe caribou are genetically distinct and are likely to go extinct unless land use patterns change."

The information collected and conclusions drawn by Smith and his team of researchers, which included UMFK students, was presented at a Protected Areas Research Forum of Manitoba in Winnipeg last month. An expanded abstract of the work will be published in the refereed conference proceedings.

The report entitled "Seasonal diets of Gaspé caribou, Parc de la Gaspésie, Québec" was co-authored by Jean-Pierre Ouellet of the University of Quebec at Rimouski.

The collaborative work between the former UMFK faculty member and a number of his students provided an excellent hands-on learning experience for all involved.

"I particularly enjoyed taking students to the study site. I can think of nothing I enjoy more than exposing students and interested community members to unique ecosystems that they might not otherwise be able to travel to or learn about on their own," said Smith.