January 19, 2024
Midway through the 18th century, France was a hugely powerful nation with colonies and outposts around the globe. Nowhere else was this vast reach as impressively on display as in eastern North America. “New France” stretched all the way south from what’s now Atlantic Canada to New Orleans and west to Saskatchewan. While Britain and Spain likewise controlled plenty of land, as of 1750 neither laid claim to as much of this continent as France did.
What a difference even a few years can make. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris ceded to Britain all French claims to Canadian soil. Then, with the Louisiana Purchase by the U.S. in 1803, French rule in North America effectively ended. While France’s language and culture still heavily influence Canada and South Louisiana, it’s now been over two centuries since the French connection to North America was totally severed. Or so most people believe.
Fact is, the French still rule on this continent. It’s just that their holdings have shrunk to almost zero. From the 3.9 million square miles of North America France held in 1750, the area now is down to a minuscule 93. And this last crumb on the plate goes by a name you’ve likely never even heard: the Territorial Collectivity of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon. (For the sake of space and simplicity, let’s hereafter call it SPM).
This tiny archipelago just south of Newfoundland remains fully part of France. Its people are citizens of that country. They use the Euro for currency. Their electrical outlets are 220V. Yet when it comes to hunting, by far their biggest game is an animal found nowhere in Mother France: the white-tailed deer.
A PLACE LOST IN SPACE
Looking at a map of the northeastern corner of North America, you can see how SPM remains virtually unknown. It’s a tiny area not easy to spot even when you’re looking for it — and few people ever are. These islands became associated with France through the voyages of Basque fishermen around the time of Columbus. The tongue-twisting name is a link to that past. Saint-Pierre, where the bulk of the 6,000 residents live, is not surprisingly named for St. Peter, a patron saint of fishermen.
Miquelon is a French form of Michael. The latter island really is now two in one (Miquelon to the north, Langlade to the south) connected by a thin, 12-mile-long sand isthmus that linked them in the 1700s. SPM’s proximity to prime fishing grounds made it coveted real estate from the start. Finally, after centuries of being bounced back and forth between France and Britain, in 1815 the islands ended up in French hands to stay. (Well, except for a period early in World War 2, when SPM and the rest of France were under the control of Nazi Germany).
Keeping this toehold in North America had worked to France’s economic benefit earlier in the 20th century during Prohibition. Unlike the U.S. and Canada, France never had a law against sales of alcohol, so for a few years SPM was a hotspot for booze smugglers. Even Al Capone once slept here. Really. When Prohibition ended, SPM went back to commercial fishing, again embracing its motto of A Mare Labor: “from the sea, work.” Now that you’re quite prepared for that next game of Trivial Pursuit, let’s get to the real subject at hand: the thriving herd of whitetails living wild and free on the windswept slopes of Miquelon-Langlade.
DEER WHERE NONE SHOULD BE
As recently as 1952, you wouldn’t have seen any whitetails in SPM. Nor would you have found one anywhere close. They did exist in numbers on Quebec’s much larger Anticosti Island, the result of private stockings of animals from the mainland in 1896, but Anticosti is nearly 300 miles away. Newfoundland lies just 12 miles from SPM, but you’d have found no whitetails there, either. Although Canada moose and woodland caribou are native to that island province, no other member of the deer family has ever been documented there.
The closest to SPM you might have seen a whitetail back then was on Cape Breton Island, the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia. Whitetails had moved there from that province’s mainland in the first half of the 20th century, having made water crossings under a mile in width. However, not even the most aquatically ambitious Cape Breton deer could have made it to SPM on its own. That would have required a swim of over 160 miles across the rough, frigid Laurentian Channel.
Cape Breton ended up playing a key role in the SPM whitetail story, though. Its own history as a Basque fishing area largely mirrors that of SPM, and this French connection facilitated what happened in 1953. That’s when a dozen whitetails from Cape Breton found themselves en route to a new home on Miquelon-Langlade.
Details of the event are sketchy. What’s known is that the deer were trapped, placed into wooden crates, taken by boat to the southern end of Langlade and released. It was hoped that their descendants might provide a big-game hunting option in a place with no such native animals of its own. Snowshoe hares had been brought to SPM in 1881 for hunting and had become well established, but unless the deer survived, descendants of those stocked hares would remain the only wingless game available.
Any concerns about the whitetails’ ability to adapt to this French outpost soon vanished. Within only a few years there were deer roaming over much of Langlade, and eventually some moved north onto Miquelon. Hungry for venison and a big-game experience, resident hunters began pursuing both bucks and does during an abbreviated fall season. For locals, the era of the chasseur au cerf – whitetail hunter – had finally arrived.
Most hunting then was done with a shotgun, as is still the case. However, a few pockets around the more developed areas came to be bowhunting-only. A person must be an SPM resident to participate in the hunt, and to be eligible he or she must register for the fall season many months prior. Then there’s a mandatory training course before opening day. To avoid a mass blitz on the opener, the hunters are divided into two groups split between halves of the season. Hunting begins well before the rut and runs through it. Most of the participants live on Saint-Pierre, so during the season there are plenty of boat trips between there and Miquelon-Langlade. Large inflatables are popular for this duty, ferrying hunters, gear and deer between the islands. Despite the area’s deserved reputation as a graveyard for ships, serious local hunters aren’t to be denied.
The whitetails, for their part, now live all over Miquelon-Langlade, from windy fir stands, stream courses and steep oceanside cliffs. It might not look like your usual whitetail country, but the deer have clearly made it their own. Unlike most of us, SPM’s early deer hunters had few mentors from whom to learn the whitetail game. So while their strategies and tactics somewhat overlay ours, they’re hardly identical. For instance, hunters often operate in small groups, rather than solo. They stay on the ground and cover a lot of territory. Human drives are popular, and some hunters use trained dogs to reveal and recover game. Vast areas of this habitat are publicly accessible and have established hiking paths and walkways, and many hunting parties stick close to them.
There’s certainly interest in taking mature bucks, as evidenced by the number of trophies displayed on a few social media accounts. Some racks are wide and heavy. However, I’ve found no taxidermist open for business in SPM. Nor is there any apparent push to score antlers. The bucks would be eligible for Boone & Crockett and/or Pope & Young scoring, but it seems no qualifying entries have been made.
When a photo of a big deer from Miquelon-Langlade is posted, the most frequent question seems to be, “Combien pesait-il?” (“How much did it weigh?”) With mature bucks here, the dressed weight sometimes exceeds 200 pounds. The lack of any agricultural base makes the bulky bodies and strong antlers all the more impressive.
Today, introducing any wild herbivore into an area with no natural predators is generally frowned upon. That’s particularly true with whitetails, given their voracious appetites, reproductive potential and reputation (factual or not) for spreading certain diseases. But back in 1953, if anyone on SPM voiced such concerns, they obviously were dismissed.
Local hunters now take more than 500 bucks and does each fall. Despite this, the herd continues to put heavy browsing pressure on Miquelon-Langlade’s habitat. One ongoing research study has blamed deer for reducing the health and recruitment of balsam fir, with hares being considered the main culprits in the decline of white spruce.
From a biodiversity perspective, it might be hard to call the introduction of either animal to SPM a permanent success, despite the fact those events led to a widely accepted hunting culture based on their presence. But to date, there evidently have been no plans made to eradicate these imported species or to resort to non-hunting means of controlling their habitat damage. The most widely accepted thought is that hunters simply need to shoot more.
As revealed by History Channel’s Nova Scotia-based The Curse of Oak Island TV series, our continent’s northeastern coast has an intriguing past. SPM is by no means as famous as that tiny Island, but its rich history as a fishing center, smuggling hideout and final remnant of New France’s former glory makes it fascinating in its own right. Although there’s no rumor of a “money pit” to discover on Miquelon-Langlade, thanks to the efforts of some sportsmen 70 years ago, there’s whitetail treasure today’s local hunters feel is well worth seeking.