Caribou count aims to get a sense of herd movement in central Newfoundland

·2 min read
Wildlife officials are analyzing data on caribou population numbers in central Newfoundland. (Clifford Doran/Submitted by Gord Follett  - image credit)
Wildlife officials are analyzing data on caribou population numbers in central Newfoundland. (Clifford Doran/Submitted by Gord Follett - image credit)
Clifford Doran/Submitted by Gord Follett
Clifford Doran/Submitted by Gord Follett

Wildlife officials are analyzing data on caribou population numbers in central Newfoundland, hoping to track the distribution of the herds in the area over the winter and how that has changed over the past few years.

This year's survey began in February, encompassing the area from the Bay d'Espoir Highway to the east, LaPoile Bay to the west and the Trans-Canada Highway to the north — about 63,000 square kilometres.

Aaron Coward, a provincial ecosystem management ecologist, says pilots herd the caribou into a group — ideally into a line.

"Then they're able to fly low and slow over the top of these animals and we drop a small amount of paint, red paint, on one in four animals that we see.… That's Phase 1," said Coward.

"We return 10 days or two weeks later for Phase 2 of the survey.… We fly similar or the same lines, and we find groups of animals, we recount those animals and we get a portion of marked to unmarked animals."

According to the province, the process of marking of the caribou, and the paint itself does not pose any health risk to the animal. When the caribou shed their winter coat the paint will no longer be visible.

Troy Turner/CBC
Troy Turner/CBC

Coward says the regional survey started in 2007 but data on caribou numbers has been around for more than 60 years.

"This region has stabilized over the past two-three years. We don't have the results from this survey yet but the previous two surveys have been fairly stable," he said. According to the provincial government, the 2019 island count was 30,580 caribou.

"We had very …steep increase in animals toward the mid-1990s. The mid-'90s was our peak population size, at about 95,000 animals, and when you have that many animals on a landscape, they tend to start degrading their habitat."

Degradation coincided with an increase in predation — specifically from coyotes — during that time, which also led to a smaller population, said Coward.

"There are other predators of caribou as well — black bears being one of them — and what ended up happening was the older, sicker, less fit animals in the caribou population were targeted by these predators," he said. "They were easier prey and that ended by reducing the population size to what we're seeing today."

Troy Turner/CBC
Troy Turner/CBC

While the numbers have been relatively stable, says Coward, herd recruitment is always a challenge.

"Recruitment is the survival of that birthed calf to maturity. It's the recruitment that's the issue. It's introducing new animals to the herd," Coward said.

"We are experiencing increases in some of these herds and we're seeing that in some of the population estimates and we're seeing of that in our fall classifications where we collect recruitment information."

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