Conservation Minister Charlene Johnson says there is evidence that the endangered Red Wine caribou herd mixes with the larger George River herd. ((CBC))

The Newfoundland and Labrador government is challenging the Innu Nation's claim that a hunt this week will have no impact on an endangered caribou herd.

Innu hunters headed Thursday into an area east of Churchill Falls to kill caribou. Hunting is restricted in the zone to protect the Red Wine caribou herd, which is estimated to have just 85 animals in it.

The Innu Nation insists the Red Wine caribou are not in the area, while Environment and Conservation Minister Charlene Johnson said they are.

"We know that the Red Wine herd are intermingling with the George River herd," Johnson said Thursday.

Natural Resources Minister Kathy Dunderdale, meanwhile, said conservation officers were monitoring Thursday's hunt.

"We're watching it very carefully," she said, adding that the Innu Nation hunt had created "a very volatile situation."

"These 85 animals are mixed in the general herd and, unless you identify them by collar, there's no [real] way of distinguishing the two animals," Dunderdale said.

"But I'm not prepared to put my conservation officers in a situation where their life might be at risk or they're in some danger in this situation."

Peter Penashue, deputy grand chief of the Innu Nation, disputes that the animals are hard to distinguish. He said data from radio collars show the Red Wine herd is separated from other caribou.

"We're making a point that this zone is not required for the health ... of the Red Wine [herd]," he said.