Human Journey

In Decline, Caribou Face a Tough Winter in Canada

It was once our largest caribou herd, and one of the biggest herds of large migratory mammals anywhere in the world.  The George River caribou of northern Quebec and Labrador were surpassed in numbers perhaps only by Africa’s wildebeest. But now their population is perilously small—about 4 percent of its peak. Although migratory caribou, also called reindeer, are known for wide swings in population size, encroachment of industrial development into their habitat puts these animals at increasing risk.

In the late 1940s, the George River caribou herd may have declined to as few as 3,500 animals, and in 1958, a careful census estimated its numbers at 15,000. Historically, when the herd reached these low points, many of the Innu, Cree, and Inuit people, who lived in what is now northern Quebec and Labrador, died from starvation. But the George River caribou herd rebounded with amazing vitality, reaching an astonishing 775,000 animals by 1993, ranging over an area larger than France.

Today it is one of a handful of large terrestrial mammal populations around the world that continues the long-distance migration its ancestors carried out for millennia. In a single year, some of these animals will travel thousands of kilometers across Canada’s boreal forest between their wintering and calving grounds.

Member of the George River caribou herd. Photo courtesy of Valerie Courtois, Canadian Boreal Initiative.

The current decline of the herd is due in part to overgrazing of its summer range, resulting in higher mortality from poor nutrition. By 2001, the herd was at 385,000 animals and continuing to decrease, totaling 75,000 animals in 2010. The most recent survey puts the herd size at fewer than 28,000.

This steep drop forces us to consider whether and how to address the low numbers. The populations tend to rebound after the number of animals foraging in certain areas decreases and the preferred foods grow back. But small numbers create a vulnerability to conditions that could push the population over the edge. As mining and other interests propose development of the same lands that the caribou use for calving and other phases of their life cycle, the animals have fewer places to go. These types of spatial limitations make them more vulnerable to predators. The incursions also make it harder to find areas that are good for foraging and free of mosquitoes and skin-burrowing warble flies that weaken calves and older animals. Add to that the challenges caused by climate change, and a herd at low population size could be at risk of endangerment.

There is some good news for the George River caribou herd, however. The government of Nunatsiavut in northern Labrador recently endorsed a proposal to put a 14,000-square-kilometer (3.5 million-acre) area of George River calving grounds off limits to mineral exploration and other industrial development. Additional sections of the herd’s calving grounds are already protected within the Torngat Mountains National Park and within the George River and Pyramid Mountains interim protected areas. In addition, the Inuit government territories of Nunavik and Nunatsiavut, where the calving grounds are located, are pressing for even more land protections.

Participants of the Innu-led George River summit. Photo courtesy of Valerie Courtois, Canadian Boreal Initiative.

The Innu of Quebec and Labrador have maintained an intimate relationship with the George River caribou for millennia. This summer, an Innu-led organization hosted a gathering of Innu leaders, scientists, and advocates working in partnership with the Pew Environment Group’s boreal protection efforts. They met in an ancient encampment along the George River known as Mushuau-Nipi to discuss ways to blend modern conservation and aboriginal knowledge to achieve healthy caribou populations.  Participants agreed that to ensure recovery of the herd, a 90,000-square-kilometer area in far northeastern Quebec and northwestern Labrador must be protected, including the Nunatsiavut government’s proposed no-development zone.

Let us hope that the leaders of the governments of Quebec and of Newfoundland and Labrador will follow suit and make this region a model of balance between ecological needs and industrial opportunities. The world will be watching to see whether the George River caribou can rebound and continue on their timeless treks across the wide-open spaces of Canada’s north.

Jeff Wells is a science adviser for the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign. He received  a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, where he is a visiting fellow.

Dr. Jeff Wells is the Science and Policy Director for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He earned his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and has published numerous scientific and popular articles, book chapters, and is the author of Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk (2007), Boreal Birds of North America (2011) and Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao (2017).
  • remi lorteau

    protection of critical habitat is the right approach & regulated hunting when populations are under duress will make a huge impact. your work on caribou conservation is right.

  • Ken Cashin

    Great idea, agree 100%.
    However, the Innu have not respected a complete no hunting ban of these animals imposed by the NL & Quebec governments. Both gov’t this year put a ban on all hunting of George river caribou. the Innu groups out of Natuashish & Sheshatshiu have both taken some of these protected animal this past winter to the tune of about 300-400 animals.. a bit hypocritical isn’t it ???….. they are all talk just to look good in the eyes of the world. however they do not really care what happens to these animals. if they wanted to help they should not be out hunting them when their numbers are so low and on the edge of extinction. than after the animals are wiped out they will blame the governments for not doing enough to help these animals. when it was really their fault…. no respect for anything!!!!

  • ted bruckner

    having just read the book titled ‘never cry wolf ‘. I share that that in 1930 the caribou pop. was 4 million! trappers claimed that they only killed a few a year and it was wolves doing all the killing, but they lied and each killed 300-400 each to bait their traps and feed their dogs and there were 18,000 trappers! then the governments sponsored” tourism”, kill a magnificient caribou, helicopter or plane herding then slaughtering around 60 + just to get that special one allowed to be be headed for the game trophy. the wolves only ate the weak and sick and lived mainly on mice. before euro-pee-on s came the locals, wolves and caribou lived just fine. what’s this maylarkey in the article about over grazing? how can 28 K overgraze where 4 Millioin grazed only 80 yaers ago?

  • Richard Hume

    We were one of the first outfitters to hunt off the George River herd and we were also one of the last outfitters to hunt off the George River herd before it was officially closed to all sport hunting. During our last few years that we hunted off the George River herd every time a small herd of caribou came through it was followed by a pack of wolves. Some of our guides have witnessed on more than once occasion one or more wolves hunting down a healthy mature bull caribou. It is certain that the wolves will eat off the sick but they most certainly kill off any calves that they can get a hold of too and when none are available they will and can kill any caribou they decide to kill. To say that they strictly eat off the sick caribou is completely false. We have spent the last 40 years hunting and outfitting caribou in Nunavik (northern Quebec). Unless the wolves are controlled the caribou will not make a comeback. My opinion!! We did not use to see wolves and when we did we all talked about having seen one. That changed in the most recent years and now Labrador and northern Quebec is over run by wolves. We have a problem and it is called predation!

  • Craig Eisenhart

    I first hunted Nunavik in 1980. I’ve been on 13 hunts if I can count correctly. The last was in 2012. In my opinion, the problem is mostly over foraging. I suspect the wolf population exploded with all the Caribou. Shucks, sometimes we would see thousands in a few hours. Easy pickings for hunter or wolf. I also remember seeing many caribou stashed in the back of native hunters trucks in Schefferville. The area is huge beautiful, but its also harsh, unforgiving and on the Canadian Shield. Its no garden. I hunted the week thousands drowned. Population crashes are part of the circle and are well known among Caribou herds.
    . I hope to hunt with Richard Hume soon. If the herd on the Ungava pensiula maintains itself.

  • bill hunt

    its hard to believe someone who has their own self interest in the mix and I would argue that the wolves can kill whatever they want whenever they want.
    now I realise that elk are a different animal but when the wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone the only reason elk would die mainly was starvation because they would live so long their teeth would wear out and they would starve
    enter the wolf and they were watched closer than any animal in history and it was noticed that even with the advantage of thousands of older elk the wolves were successful 1 out of 10 hunts.
    wolves did not evolve as predators but had a role of scavengers.
    you look at the buffalo 50 to 100 million even with 50 million it is estimated 4 million would die every year that’s a little more than 10,000 everyday. that didn’t include the millions of caribou, deer, antelope and all the other animals the wolves could eat.
    someone mentioned above that he witnessed hundreds of caribou drown, more food for the scavengers..
    its ridiculous to blame the wolves or the native people that lived with these animals for 10,000 years..

  • bill hunt

    wolves can not kill whenever they want, wolves evolved with millions of ungulates the buffalo alone numbered 50 to 100 million. even with 50 million it estimated that 4 million would die every year that’s more than 10,000 every day, that does not include the millions of caribou, sheep, goats, antelope, deer and the millions of other animals that would die.
    someone mentioned seeing hundreds die from drowning, the wolves didn’t have to kill anything until white people slaughtered everything on the continent and Canadians should be ashamed and embarrassed of the state of the natural environment.

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