The George River caribou population continues to plummet at an alarming rate, according to a recent survey involving the affected provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec.
The photo survey by biologists from both provinces found there were 14,200 caribou — down from 27,600 in 2012 — in July, according to a news release by the Newfoundland and Labrador government.
In just four years, the herd's numbers have dropped by more than 80 per cent. In 2010, there were 74,000 animals migrating between northern Quebec and Labrador.
It's a devastating decline for an animal that numbered more than 500,000 in the lifetime of wildlife biologist Tony Chubbs, president of the Labrador Hunting and Fishing Association.
"It's really unbelievable that a herd would come from such high numbers — one of the largest caribou herds in the world — to very very small numbers. It's unimaginable."
The joint survey blames high adult mortality among the George River herd, as well as calves struggling to survive.
Laval University biologist Steve Côté describes the collapse as a "really big crash."
Côté said even with severe hunting restrictions and reduced resource extraction, the caribou continue to fall to predators, or die from starvation or disease.
"There's no unique cause for this decline. There are multiple causes and we're still investigating these causes." he says
Côté says other caribou herds have neared extinction before, then rebounded. He predicts if the George River caribou do the same, the numbers will plunge further before showing signs of improvement.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government's five-year ban on hunting caribou in Labrador that was implemented in 2013 remains in effect.
The herd numbered 700,000-800,000 in the 1980s.