Nunavik-Labrador caribou herd numbers plummeting

Investigations focusing on high adult mortalities, low calf survival


Laval University biologists put a collar on a captured caribou in Northern Quebec in February 2013. (PHOTO COURTESY OF CARIBOU UNGAVA)

Laval University biologists put a collar on a captured caribou in Northern Quebec in February 2013. (PHOTO COURTESY OF CARIBOU UNGAVA)

As Nunavummiut struggle to understand the plummeting caribou population on Baffin Island, residents in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador are dealing with their own caribou crisis.

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced Aug. 14 that the George River woodland caribou herd, whose range overlaps Quebec and Labrador, has declined to roughly 14,200 animals — down from 27,600 in 2012.

That is a significant drop just from four years ago when the government counted 74,000 caribou in that herd in 2010.

Steeve Côté, a biologist at Laval University in Montreal, is leading research projects into the decline and hoping to pinpoint some of the causes.

He said there are multiple theories at this point, and they probably all contributed to the current outcome.

For one, the herd reached a peak of 800,000 animals about 25 years ago and so there was a huge impact on the environment from over-grazing and trampling of their food source.

Also, those high numbers lead to an increase in black bears and wolves, which hunt the caribou. When the caribou numbers declined, the predators stayed numerous for a while, leading to over predation, he said.

He also pointed to the unpredictable climate: a change in the amount of snow and timing of freeze-up impact the herd’s migration habits and patterns, Côté said. Warmer weather also brings more insects which can cause distress and weaken the animals.

Côté is hoping to get a grant from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada to fund a project focusing on predators next year.

“From what we see right now, there is no indication that the decline is stopping. Survival is still low,” he said. The recruitment survey last fall was the worst we had seen since we started doing that in 1973.”

A recruitment survey is when researchers count how many calves born in spring survive until the fall.

“As a government, we know this herd is of critical importance to the people of Labrador and we have made significant investments into the enhanced management, increased biological monitoring and improved collaboration with the Province of Quebec,” Newfoundland’s environment minister Vaughn Granter said in an Aug. 14 news release.

In 2013, the government issued a five-year moratorium on harvesting caribou from that herd.

But even with that moratorium, “and infusions of funding for monitoring and research, the herd continues to struggle,” Granter said in the release.

Biologists from both provinces which share the herd conducted what’s called a “photo census” in July 2014.

According to a government backgrounder, this counting method, which has been used consistently since 1993, relies on photographing dense groups of caribou in July, one month after calving.

Caribou form these dense groups on hilltops to nurture their young away from biting insects. Biologists locate these caribou clusters through animals that have radio collars, and then take high resolution photos of the groups from helicopters.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government announced this year it was putting $975,000 toward three years of scientific research and monitoring of the George River herd. That replaces a previous three-year financial commitment of $1.9 million in 2011.

The George River herd seems to have fluctuated through cycles of abundance and scarcity over the past 100 years with peaks around 1890 and 1990, according to government materials. The herd was decimated around 1950 and then recovered in the 1970s and 80s.

Despite that, “investigations continue to focus on causes of high adult mortalities and the low number of caribou surviving beyond six months of age,” the Aug. 14 news release says.

That release says that in order for a caribou population to remain stable, 15 per cent of calves need to survive at least until their first fall. But in the George River herd, it appears only 6.8 per cent of calves are doing so.

Although Nunavik’s Leaf River caribou herd seems healthy at 430,000 animals, a 2011 survey of that herd noted that adult survival rates and the number of calves produced were low which means the herd is in a “decreasing phase.”

Indigenous groups from Quebec and Labrador have formed the Ungava Caribou Aboriginal Roundtable to continue monitoring the drop in caribou numbers and discuss the needs and challenges of maintaining the harvesting ban.

A survey earlier this year of Baffin Island caribou alarmed Nunavut biologists who said caribou in North Baffin have almost completely disappeared.

Preliminary results of that $1-million aerial survey, conducted in February and March 2014, lead Drikus Gissing, Nunavut’s director of wildlife management for the Department of Environment, to describe the decline as, “one of the biggest conservation issues Nunavut has ever had to deal with.”

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