Caribou populations tend to fluctuate depending on the presence of vegetation and predators, but Inuit hunters say caribou are also sensitive to loud noise and will go great distances to escape from it. ((CBC))

Inuit living on Baffin Island say they're worried about the caribou this winter, as the animals have not been seen at the usual hunting spots.

Hunters on the island have had to travel greater distances this fall and winter to find caribou, said Jayko Allooloo, chairman of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization in Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

Allooloo said hunters in the northern Baffin community travelled as far as Clyde River — about 400 kilometres south — to find caribou. By comparison, he said, there were plenty of caribou around Pond Inlet in the 1990s.

Caribou populations fluctuate depending on the presence of vegetation and predators, but Allooloo said he believes caribou have been scared off by heightened aerial activity since Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. began building a mining camp south of Pond Inlet in the past year.

"With those noisy helicopters and the planes, they're scared away, they start to go spreading all over," Allooloo said.

"Like [in] North Baffin, there's hardly any caribou there. We knew that they moved down maybe [to] central or south Baffin."

Biologists gathering data

Nunavut government biologists are working on several caribou-related projects and collecting data from communities. A caribou collaring program has been underway since 1993.

"At this point, there's not enough information. What's happening now is it's going through a fairly intensive information-gathering process, certainly on Baffin and right across Nunavut," regional wildlife biologist Mitch Campbell said.

"There are no real theories other than we do know that caribou naturally increase and decrease, and we suspect that it might have something to do with that."

Campbell said there is a "very large-scale research project" starting up this fiscal year to locate caribou and determine the relative densities of the animals around Baffin Island.

The Nunavut government has almost finished work on a caribou strategy, but Campbell said working with hunters and community members has given scientists a much better picture of what is happening with caribou in the territory.

Allooloo said he does not believe caribou populations are declining on the island, but rather the caribou have simply moved to safer grounds.

He also blamed the controversial practice of researchers using helicopters in order to put location-tracking collars on them.