A drastic drop in the George River caribou population means the herd is at a "critically low" level, says the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

Even more alarming, according to the province, is if the current rate of decline continues, the herd could be functionally wiped out in less than five years.

A press release from the provincial government Monday says the population survey puts the herd count at 8,938 animals, down 37 per cent in just two years from the 14,200 recorded in 2014.

'Point of no return'

Environment and Climate Change Minister Perry Trimper said he's worried the herd will dwindle so low it won't be able to recover.

"There may still be caribou on the landscape, at extremely low densities, but there's a certain synergy," he told CBC News. "There's a certain minimum number of individuals that you'd need to get your population going back in the right direction, and we're very concerned that we are very quickly moving to that point of no return"

The herd has declined by 99 per cent since the early 1990s, government said, when it was estimated to number about 800,000 animals.

Government attributes the drop to deterioration in habitat and food resources, predation and climate change. The provincial government banned hunting the herd in 2013.

Not enough caribou are being born to replace the ones that are dying, said Trimper, who said convincing everyone of the need for a hunting ban is a challenge.

Technology making hunting more efficient than ever

"The elders that we have available that provide wisdom and direction as to what's going on, some at least are of the opinion that hunting can continue, that it should be OK, the population can recover," he said, but added there are other factors today that make recovery much harder than in the past, he said.

"We now have technology that makes the efficiency of the hunt much more dramatic," he said. "We have snowmobiles, aircraft, high-powered rifles, great knowledge as to where the animals are, all of this in combination with the fact that the last few years, the overwintering population has been very close to communities."

Trimper said the government is seeing collared animals being shot.

"We really are asking for the public's support and cooperation in this," he said. "It's going to be much better to stop people from hunting than to catch offenders."