The lawyer for an Innu band in Quebec is stopping short of saying members were involved in a recent illegal caribou hunt in southern Labrador but he says the group has harvested the animal this season.
"Of course every winter the Pakua Shipi Innu go to the territory and they hunt caribou," François Lévesque told CBC's Labrador Morning.
"They don't look at the border."
The Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Fisheries and Land Resources found evidence that 13 caribou were illegally harvested in the Birchy Lake area last week. An investigation is underway but no charges have been laid.
A hunting ban on the George River caribou has been in place in Labrador since 2013. Other herds of woodland caribou in Labrador are on the endangered species list and are therefore also illegal to hunt.
"To tell the Innu not to go along with the caribou, it's like telling them not to breathe," Lévesque said.
"If we ban that, we ban food for them so what are we supposed to do?"
Different population estimates
Lévesque — who intends to constitutionally challenge a case from fall 2015 where Pakua Shipi Innu hunters were caught harvesting caribou in the same area as last week's illegal hunt — said the band has its own, larger estimation of the herds in southern Labrador.
"They are on the field," he said of the Quebec Innu, who hunt near the Quebec-southern Labrador border.
"They are not on board of a chopper. They see the caribou."
Hollis Yetman Jr., a former wildlife officer who retired in 2006 and keeps tabs on Labrador's wildlife populations, believes in the department's estimations.
"For anybody to say that caribou are numerous in this area is incorrect," he said.
"The groups that are hunting, either they don't really understand the desperate state of these caribou or they just want to continue what they've done for years but, in my opinion, if it continues, they'll kill the last one."
The Quebec lawyer suggests a number of causes for the decline in Labrador's caribou population, ranging from mining to megaprojects, but Yetman thinks otherwise.
"There's very little industrial development in that area that affects these caribou," he said.
"The biggest threat that they have at the moment is bullets from guns, in my opinion.
Yetman believes the estimated 13 animals harvested last week were woodland caribou from a segregated herd of about 50.
"Of course the hunt has an impact on the herd," said Lévesque. "But, you know, it's 13 caribou on what we think is 4,000 caribou — the impact is not major."
Lévesque, who's represented the Pakua Shipi Innu, for about five years said the band harvests only what's needed to eat.
He said the Newfoundland and Labrador government reacted when "the damage was done" and waited too long to impose a ban on commercial and sport hunting for non-Indigenous groups.
"These small impacts wouldn't have happened if the ban was put in place before," he said.