It could be a hundred years before the number of caribou in the George River Caribou Herd reach levels seen in the past, according to a wildlife expert from Nunatsiavut, an Inuit-governed region in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which borders the northern portion of the province of Quebec.
At one time, close to a million boreal woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) roamed the forests and tundra of Nunatsiavut — a region slightly bigger than Ireland, but populated by fewer than 3,000 people — and surrounding areas. Now, the legendary herd has dwindled to a few thousand animals and a hunting ban is in effect.
“The ban on the George River caribou gives a perfect example of how wildlife management wasn’t put into place,” said Jim Goudie, Nunatsiavut deputy minister of Lands and Natural Resources, in an interview with Forests News.
For a long time – as far back as the 1980s – Indigenous groups were asking the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to create a stakeholders’ management group for the George River Caribou Herd, Goudie said.
“Those comments just fell on deaf ears,” he added. “There were no measures put into place by the province for non-Indigenous people — there was a licensing system for people who weren’t Indigenous, but there was no real dialogue with Indigenous groups at that time.”
It was not Indigenous hunting practices that put the herd in its current perilous state, said Todd Russell, the president of NunatuKavut Community Council, who pins much of the blame on recreational hunting. The council is the representative governing body for 6,000 Inuit who live mainly in 12 communities along the coast of central and southern Labrador.
People felt the provincial governments had not applied the necessary resources to protect the herd from poaching or illegal activity, Russell told Forests News.
While hunting made a significant contribution to the collapse of the migratory George River herd, the caribou were also hit by disease, natural predators, infrastructure development and erratic weather related to climate change.
By 2001, there were about 385,000 caribou in the herd, according to a survey from the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial Department of Fisheries and Land Resources. By 2010, the population was estimated at just 74,000. By 2016, despite a hunting ban, the population had declined to 8,900 animals, and in 2018, there were only 5,500 caribou counted, a decline of 38 percent over two years.
The ban was upheld by several Indigenous Peoples in the region reliant on caribou for food, clothing, shelter, spiritual and cultural uses. In 2013, seven nations formed the landmark Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table (UPCART) — which covers an area of 1.5 million square kilometers, affecting 60,000 Indigenous Peoples — in an effort to conserve and manage the caribou.
“We realized that caribou management was going to have to be taken into our own hands,” said Goudie, explaining that UPCART has put a 100-year strategy in place. “We weren’t making any headway with provincial governments.”
UPCART’s approach to caribou management is to look at it from the perspective of the caribou, considering its health and the health of its ecosystem holistically, Russell said. “I think it’s one that really respects the caribou themselves.”
The situation in Canada’s north highlights challenges surrounding sustainable wildlife management worldwide, specifically with regard to the question of how many animals can be hunted in any given location, said John Fa, a senior associate scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a professor of biodiversity and human development at Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University.
Traditionally, Indigenous Peoples took what they needed from animal populations to subsist, but since colonization, hunting and fishing by settlers in all ecosystem types has been underpinned by a concept of maximum sustainable yield, said Fa, who is currently working on a book about sustainable wild meat hunting for Cambridge University Press.
“There are many nuances in how sustainability is conceptualized, and it is often difficult to apply and measure on the ground,” Fa said. “The theory of maximum sustainable yield envisions hunting the maximum sustainable harvest of wild meat without depleting species stock over an indefinite period.”
Based on a continuous time-growth model, the theory relies on a modernist economic concept of supply and demand or “carrying capacity,” under which growth rate is lowest at two extremes of population density: either unhunted or heavily hunted to the point of near extinction, Fa said.
However, the theory is formulaic and does not provide a framework for measurement due to the difficulty in measuring carrying capacity and the rate of population growth, Fa said. “It isn’t always the case that population decline means unsustainability; it can mean that the population is establishing a new equilibrium.”
Various other theories exist to measure potential hunting yields, but the difficulty is in establishing the sweet spot amid various external factors, including outdated data, illegal hunting, disease, environmental and predator-prey systems, he said.
One school of thought suggests that theories of maximum sustainable yield are based on assessing rather than achieving sustainability. Improved management can be the result if meat hunting is conceptualized as a fluid social-ecological system managed through participatory, adaptive monitoring systems, which embrace uncertainties.
“Ideally, although it is difficult to encourage hunters to engage in self-monitoring, first-person metrics would allow conservation managers and communities to understand patterns, track changes, and revise and update regulations affecting hunting,” Fa said.
This strategy overturns more classic forms of management in which precautionary principles are put forward, estimating wild meat stocks with precision and measuring risks.
“Participatory monitoring systems often trigger a process of collective action, which if supported by policy development, can lead to strategies that can respond to unpredictable ecosystem dynamics,” Fa said.
The key is to implement policies at community and government levels, which consider the big picture, rather than depending on un- or semi-reliable mathematical models, he added. “Government policies often pay lip service to scientific methods of sustainable wildlife management, but do not actually rely on them.”
As we move ahead, all Indigenous groups need to agree to management strategies for the long-term — not only recovery – but a stable caribou herd for future generations, Goudie said.
“I think that’s a number one issue – a lot of people are thinking very short term, five or 10 years, but I think people need to start thinking long term — 25, 50 or 100 years,” he said.
“The first step we have to solve is the illegal harvest and then gradually begin an increase for this region. I think that’s the number one factor right now.”
Challenges have increased for Indigenous Peoples in the Ungava Peninsula due not only to the need to replace red meat and protein in their diets, but also through the loss of traditional harvesting practices and connection with the land.
“Unrest in terms of our continued efforts to try and solve this issue with regard to the decline and seeing other groups still harvesting and a lack of regard to the plight of the herd,” Goudie said. “It’s not that we disagree with the current ban. The critical state of the George River caribou right now is there just absolutely cannot be any harvest, they can’t sustain.”
Indigenous Peoples never hunted believing that there was a limitless supply of caribou, Russell said, explaining that while hunting patterns have changed over the years, from the Indigenous perspective, ethics stayed intact.
“Take what you need for food and utilize as much of the animal as possible,” was the prevailing attitude. Although there were scarce years, traditional stories did not envision the complete disappearance of the caribou, he said.
Caribou range across Canada’s northern boreal forests and tundra from the West coast of British Columbia to the East coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
They are represented on the country’s 25 cent piece — a quarter of a dollar — by a solitary antlered caribou head.
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