Tracing the steps of the disappearing Labrador caribou - APTN National NewsAPTN National News

Tracing the steps of the disappearing Labrador caribou

(Joey Angnatok, seen above, says it’s been four years since he’s hunted caribou in Labrador after the province banned hunting. Some haven’t abided by the ban but all say the government has handled the crisis poorly.)

Ossie Michelin
APTN National News
It’s been four years since Joey Angnatok hunted caribou.

Caribou used to be the main source of protein for many Inuit in Labrador, but since the population crashed it forced the province to ban the hunt and the Inuit have had to make do without.

“[Caribou hunting] is a cultural thing, passed down from generation to generation,” says Angnatok. “To wake up one morning and not be able to do it anymore is a hard thing to swallow.”

The last piece of caribou meat he ate was a two-year-old freezer burnt leftover, “but it was pretty good none the less.”

Few people know the area surrounding Nain, on Labrador’s North Coast, better than Angnatok.

The 38-year-old has been hunting caribou with friends and family as far back as he can remember. Nain is the most northerly community in Labrador and closest to the George River caribou herd’s migration pattern. The Inuit here are intimately familiar with the population of the herd’s ebb and flow.

Angnatok says he knew something was wrong years before the province enlisted the ban in 2011. He says that he and other hunters tried to warn the provincial government that something was happening to the herd.

“If a million animals were passing by we’d know, if a herd of a million turned into a herd of a hundred, we’d be the first to know,” says Angnatok.

Once with numbers reaching well over 700,000 in the 1980s the George River caribou herd traversed from end-to-end of the barrens and mountains of Labrador and northern Quebec.

The ban was put in place when number dipped below 75,000 in 2011 – current estimates by the province place the herd at just over 14,000.

Despite the dramatic drop in numbers the George River herd is not listed as threatened, or at risk by either the federal or provincial governments. Southern sedentary herds in Labrador like the Red Wine herd or the Mealy Mountain herd have been listed as threatened for decades.


The drop has forced the five-year ban which the provincial government says will be re-examined once it’s over in 2016.

While the province remains tight-lipped on the herd’s current conditions, a news release from last summer said that a photo census has shown that less than seven per cent of the remain herd are calves, 15 per cent or more is needed for a recovery.

Other than that, very little is known at this time about the remaining animals.

After several days, the government responded to APTN National News with a written statement.

“The provincial government is committed to sustainable management of our wildlife resources and to a management approach that is based on science…[The] department of Environment and Conservation is tabulating some information on various Labrador herds and hopes to release that information in the near future,” the emailed statement says.

The Nunatsiavut government, which represents Labrador’s 2,600 Inuit, says that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador failed to create a management plan in time, or set up a proper monitoring system to forewarn of the impending crash.

“One of the big challenges is understanding what factors are leading to the serious decline of caribou,” says Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo. “Management plans will have certain indicators to figure out what’s going on with the herd whether it’s low calving rates, or the health of the herd in general. If there had been a solid management plan throughout these indicators should have flagged something and something could have been done sooner.”

Not all Aboriginal groups are following the ban.

The Innu Nation, Labrador’s only First Nation comprised of the communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu, are maintaining a small self-monitored hunt.

The Innu have relied on the caribou for survival for thousands of years.

“We would never just go and slaughter the caribou, you need to understand that,” explains Simeon Tshakapesh, the Innu Nations deputy grand chief. “We respect the hunt, we respect the caribou. It’s our culture and nothing goes to waste. You won’t see a stomach or lungs or anything left lying around. We eat everything; we don’t waste any of it.”

Tshakapesh says that the Innu have killed less than 500 male caribou in the four years since the ban was enacted. He says, they, more than anybody, want to see the caribou numbers rebound, but that they can’t lose their connection to the animal.

“We always consult our elders before any kind of hunt. They were born in the bush and understand the caribou. They ate it to survive for many, many years,” says Tshakapesh. “When we kill an animal and the elders always come first, sometimes young people don’t get any at all.”

The Innu’s spirituality centres on the caribou.

Many ceremonies, songs, traditions and language revolve around the caribou – most notably the Mukasham which is a feast in which the Innu eat the most sacred part of the animal – the bone marrow.

“The [provincial] government can’t tell us not to practice our culture, not to practice our spirituality, not to listen to our elders,” says Tshakapesh.

Tshakapesh says that the Innu Nation has been asking the provincial government what they have been doing to monitor the situation, but, like Nunatsiavut, he says there has been little response.

“Where are the bones if they were eaten by predators? We’ve only killed 500 animals so far. What’s happened with the rest of the caribou?” asks Tshakapesh, frustration rising in his voice. “We keep asking the [provincial] government and they won’t tell us.”

Unhappy with the lack of a management plan being put forward by the provincial or federal governments, the Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut and other Inuit and First Nations groups from Labrador and Quebec have formed the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table (UPCART).

The group’s goal is to develop a management plan for the Aboriginal people that depend on the herd in order to save this valuable resource.

A caribou, or two, can feed a family of five for an entire winter.

Now, with this important food source conspicuously absent families are forced to rely on store bought meat. Meat in the stores here is much more expensive than in southern grocery chains, as it is flown and shipped in to the remote communities with large mark ups.

In the Innu communities especially the influx of prepackaged southern foods has seen diabetes rates sky rocket.

It is widely known in Labrador amongst Aboriginal people and researchers alike that the George River herd’s population has always been cyclical, rising and falling drastically.

The last time the population declined so low was in the 1950s. The caribou population grows so large that the local environment cannot sustain them, the animals eat almost all the local vegetation and the population comes crashing down only to grow in number again and again.

In the past, when the population was low subsistence hunting always continued. However, now dog teams have been replaced with snowmobiles, GPS and high-powered rifles make it easier for hunters to get a kill.

Leo says the ban needs to be respected.

“We’ve always maintained with regards to respecting the ban, it’s more about respecting the numbers and the herd,” she says. “Well thought out understanding and conservation trumps Aboriginal rights.”

Angnatok commends his fellow Inuit for not taking part in the hunt. He says it can be hard at times seeing the animals and knowing he can’t touch them, but he says he knows it’s for the best.

“The fact that I’m not able to hunt is the hardest part for me. It something we grew up with, every year it was something to look forward to whether it was spring, summer or fall I could not wait to go out on the country to do caribou hunting for myself and my friends and family,” says Angnatok.

Leo is hoping for a smaller cultural hunt, or an Aboriginal specific hunt to provide meat for community members and pass the knowledge of the hunt to the youth if the ban is lifted. However, she says many of her members worry the province will keep the ban indefinitely as they have done with the smaller Mealy Mountain woodland herd to the South.

John Jacobs of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has studied the herd for over 20 years and says the caribou have a lot more to worry about than hunting. He hopes the herd will rebound as it has done in the past, but he is not certain.

Jacobs says that after the population crashes it takes several decades to rebound. However, what he says is different now than during the last crash, “is the impact of human activities and contact on [the caribou’s] territories.”

Hunters now have greater access to the caribou than ever before; either hunting on snowmobile or simply driving on the Trans-Labrador Highway which cuts through their territory. Power line corridors provide predators like wolves a direct route into the heart of the caribou migration. Increased hydroelectric and mining developments as well put strain on the population.

“It’s like this all the way across the board from northern British Columbia and northern Alberta to Labrador,” says Jacobs, whose organization monitors environmental impacts in Canada. “Development is chewing away at what has been the habitat of these animals, and they simply can’t take it.”

Since the late 1800s, Jacobs says the sub Arctic boreal forest, where the caribou dwell, has been reduced by half and “in the southern margins, where many go in winter time, that has been cut up so much it lacks connectivity they find big roads or mines or forestry if they can’t get through so it breaks up connectivity in their range.”

Jacobs says industry impacts the herd, as well.

“All this development has incremental rolls in affecting the quality their habitat, and population,” he says.

Although there has been mines and hydro development on the caribou territory in Labrador for years, this is their first major population decimation since the industrial developments have occurred. Jacobs says, while the caribou are very resilient, all these strains work together to threaten the herd’s survival.

Despite the multiple threats to the herd’s recovery Jacobs says government austerity has forced government to cut back on its study of the caribou. Newfoundland and Labrador has invested heavily in off shore oil; when oil prices fall so too does government coffers. Jacobs says first on the chopping block is science and the environment.

“The budget for the studies of the Labrador caribou herds proposed in 2011 was announced at $1.9 million over three years,” says Jacobs. “The 2014 budget for the next three years to study the George River herd is $975,000.”

With the herd at an all time recorded low and facing numerous external pressures, Jacobs says that funding is more important now than ever to know what is going on.

Tags: , , , , , , ,