When the province’s senior wildlife biologist, Wayne Barney, was asked a few months ago how Labrador’s George River caribou herd was doing, he said the latest survey put the number of animals at 8,100.
But that was conducted in 2020.
This week, that number has gone down again.
The seventh biannual census, conducted in July by Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and the Nunatsiavut, has the herd at 7,200.
That’s an 11 per cent drop since 2020, and a staggering 98 per cent drop since 2001.
In releasing the figures, however, the province did see positive signs.
“Although overall population size decreased, the adult proportion of the population increased an average of seven per cent per year from 2018 to 2022, which is cause for optimism for the persistence and eventual recovery of this vital caribou herd,” the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture stated in a news release.
While the drop in population is concerning, it’s not the lowest it has been. In 2015, the migratory herd’s numbers were 5,500.
The department also noted the low levels don’t seem to be related to predation.
“The herd’s range is remote, with low levels of human-related habitat disturbance and currently low wolf densities. The recent census indicates calves make up 22 per cent of the total population, relatively similar to calf proportions in 2018 and 2016.”
Overall, recent years have shown considerable improvements in both adult female survival and fall calf recruitment compared to the years leading to the implementation of the hunting ban on George River caribou in 2013.
Barney says factors influencing the fluctuation in numbers are complex, as with any wildlife statistic.
“It could be environmental conditions, it could be simple predation issues, it could be simple overpopulation issues,” he told The Telegram. “And, particularly in the North, the systems are fairly simple. They rely upon predator and prey. What goes up must come down, also.”
Meanwhile, Nunatsiavut’s Lands and Natural Resources Minister Terry Vincent has told its members to continue adhering to the provincial ban on harvesting George River caribou.
“Based on latest census results, the herd is still very much in danger of recovering to levels where a sustainable harvest can happen,” Vincent said in a release. “All steps must be taken to ensure the herd is able to recover. As Labrador Inuit, we must be committed to ensuring the future sustainability of this herd, or we run the risk of losing another important part of our culture and way of life.”
However, authorities admit gains over the past few years continue to be threatened by the illegal harvest of caribou by a small number of people.
“We have a moral obligation to protect this herd so that future generations of Labrador Inuit are able to harvest this resource sustainably,” said Vincent. “In the meantime, we continue to call on both the governments of Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador to ensure adequate enforcement resources are in place to protect the herd from illegal hunting.”
The enforcement division of the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture works closely with wildlife enforcement from the province of Quebec and the federal Canadian Wildlife Service to “make all reasonable efforts to protect Labrador’s caribou herds,” the department noted.
Nunatsiavut has been importing caribou meat from other parts of Canada, but the supply is limited.
The animal is considered a spiritually significant part of life for Indigenous communities in the province, as well as a source of food.
Innu Nation officials could not be reached for comment.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram