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.

Human Journey

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).