The presence of about 30 Innu from Quebec in southern Labrador has raised concerns that the group is there to hunt a caribou population that's been protected by a ban since 2013.
There has been a ban on hunting the boreal caribou herd for years, amid concerns that the dwindling population can't survive being hunted.
Last year, the federal and provincial governments announced an agreement to help preserve and protect the population, including $5.4 million in funding from Ottawa to guide efforts to preserve the Mealy Mountain, Lac Joseph and Red Wine caribou herds.
But the presence of hunters in the area has some worried that again this year, the hunt is underway, further jeopardizing the future of the caribou population.
We go through this seemingly annually and very disappointing to hear once again. - Hollis Yetman
Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut community council, representing about 6,000 Inuit, says while the alleged hunting of the caribou isn't new, it's a worry.
"Those caribou are part of our people's story. Our people have hunted and certainly used that particular area for generations and generations, so we have a long-standing relationship with caribou and other types of wildlife in that particular area.… This is where we come from, this connection," Russell said.
"Our people have avoided hunting that particular herd of caribou for decades and will continue to do so, because we are concerned about the herd. We want to make sure that they are there not just for today but for many days and many generations to come."
There are only an estimated 1,700 caribou left in the herd, spread out over roughly 80,000 square kilometres.
Elders who previously hunted the caribou for decades want to be able to pass down their cultural knowledge to the younger generation, Russell said, but are unable to do so without risking the herd being wiped out.
"They're suffering — they're not killing caribou, they're not hunting caribou, even though they long to, even though they want the taste of caribou again, even though they want to show the younger generation," Russell said.
"So it does, it certainly angers people to a certain extent, and the concern it certainly raises to the surface, and our people are saying it is not right."
Russell said NunatuKavut believes there is no cultural justification for hunting the endangered herd, and to hear of it happening again is "very sad. It certainly raises a lot of concerns."
However, a lawyer has argued for years that the Pakuashipi Innu of Quebec have hunted caribou in the region for centuries, adding it's their way of life and a significant part of their culture.
'It's very frustrating'
The Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture said it is aware of a group of people from Quebec who have travelled into Labrador, and enforcement officers have advised the group that any harvesting of caribou in the region is illegal.
"The group has insisted they are not in the region to harvest caribou," reads a statement from the department.
Officers will continue to monitor the situation and patrol the area, and have been in contact with counterparts in Quebec and with the Canadian Wildlife Service to make "all reasonable efforts to protect the caribou herds" in Labrador.
Hollis Yetman, vice-president of the Labrador Hunting and Fishing Association and a former conservation officer, said it's past time for all parties involved to come to the table to come up with a solution.
"You have so many jurisdictions — you have provincial and federal jurisdictions, from two different provinces, you have Indigenous rights involved, and they all seem powerless to be able to stop what's happening here, and it's very frustrating to people of Newfoundland and Labrador and to everybody, even residents of Quebec that I've spoken with," Yetman said.
"Most of the caribou, if not all, south of the 52nd parallel — which is the Quebec-Labrador border — are non-existent, they're gone. And they're gone because they've been hunted back that far, and snowmobilers keep travelling back farther and farther to get the remnants of what's left."
Yetman said it's discouraging to hear word of another possible hunt underway this year.
"We go through this seemingly annually and very disappointing to hear once again," he said.
Challenging enforcement situation
From his experience as a conservation officer, Yetman knows the challenges of enforcing a hunting ban in an isolated area like southern Labrador. That, he said, means it's time for a proactive solution, rather than a reactive one.
"When we're in the country and the remote locations are not accessible by road, it's only snowmobile access or aircraft, it's already too late to do any amount of enforcement.… Thirty hunters in the country, on snowmobile, going around with guns, it's a very difficult logistical enforcement problem to deal with," Yetman said.
"The onus is on provincial authorities, federal authorities, Indigenous leaders within Newfoundland and Labrador to step up before spring every year and start talking about this situation and negotiating and get involved. Once the snowmobiles leave town, it's already too late to do enforcement."
In the meantime, Russell said NunatuKavut has talked to federal authorities about the vulnerable caribou population.
"They have a responsibility to protect this herd and they must do what they can in order to protect that herd.… We still have a herd that's endangered, we have a herd that's not showing signs of recovery, which means to say that the sustainability of the herd is in question," Russell said.
"And any type of additional human activity on this herd, particularly the killing of animals in this herd, can have devastating impacts upon the survivability of that caribou population, so it is very, very serious."