The Newfoundland and Labrador government has announced a five-year ban on hunting caribou from the George River herd in Labrador, and is threatening to arrest anyone who kills one of the animals.
"The law will be enforced and it's no different than any other law of the land," Justice Minister Darin King said Monday. "If an officer of the law finds someone hunting caribou, they'll be charged."
The ban applies to all hunters, including aboriginals.
A recent census put the population at less than 20,000 animals, a decline of more than 70 per cent since July 2010. Biologists have not been able to determine what's causing the decline.
The Metis and the Inuit had agreed to stop hunting George River caribou for two years, but the Innu have always argued that their aboriginal rights trump the province's hunting laws.
"Conservation trumps all rights simply because we're protecting a resource, a caribou herd that is in much danger of extinction," said Environment Minister Tom Hedderson.
Dozens recently killed
Sources told CBC News that dozens of George River caribou were recently killed by Innu hunters in the Border Beacon area in northwestern Labrador.
While the Innu Nation has not unveiled a conservation policy for the herd, the Inuit government in Nunatsiavut and the Inuit-Metis group NunatuKavut have asked their members to abstain from hunting the George River herd for a two-year period.
There have also been calls for non-aboriginal hunters to stay clear of the herd, which had just over 27,000 animals in a census reported last summer. Officials believe there are now fewer than 20,000 animals in the herd.
Disagreement between groups
Hollis Yetman, vice-president of the Labrador Hunting and Fishing Association, said it appears the Innu do not agree with other aboriginal groups on the hunting ban.
"I think they agreed at the meeting that they would discuss a management plan and come back to the table in six to eight weeks," said Yetman.
"Well, everyone knows in this part of the world that [in] six to eight weeks spring is here and there's a lot of caribou that can be killed in the next six to eight weeks."
Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds said the Innu hunt has troubled some people in Nunatsiavut.
"People are saying, 'Why should we be restricted when other groups are hunting caribou?' But the one thing all groups share in terms of concern is that the numbers aren't what they used to be."
The George River caribou numbered about 385,000 animals in 2001, and nearly 800,000 in the late 1980s.
The hunting ban applies only when the herd is in Labrador. The Newfoundland and Labrador government has no control over the animals when they migrate into Quebec.