Hunters in the Mackenzie Delta region of the Northwest Territories got their first look Wednesday at a proposed management plan that  would give an indicator of how many caribou from the Porcupine herd they can hunt.

At a meeting in Inuvik, N.W.T., Wednesday night, government biologists from the N.W.T. and the Yukon told aboriginal hunters that restricting their caribou harvest may be the only way to save the Porcupine herd, which has declined in numbers over the past 20 years from 180,000 animals to less than 100,000.

"Sometimes it has to be done," said Dorothy Cooley, a Yukon regional biologist who helped draft the plan.

"These really hard decisions have to be done in order to help the herd recover."

An updated draft version of the proposed caribou management plan is expected to be ready by January.

The biologists' proposed plan uses a simple visual reference to measure the health of the herd, much like a colour-coded risk level chart that warns people about the risk of forest fires.

Each year, a sign would be set at green, yellow, orange or red. A "green" status would mean the caribou population is high and no hunting restriction is in place. A "red" status would mean the caribou's numbers are critically low, and hunting would be banned.

"There's going to be signs on the highway and signs in all the communities, like the fire [risk] signs," said Marsha Branigan, the Inuvik regional wildlife manager for the Northwest Territories government.

"If we get into the orange or the red zone, we're talking about restrictions to aboriginal harvesting. So we all have to agree on that, and all have to be on the same page."

If the colour-coded plan was put in place today, Cooley said the Porcupine herd would fall into the "yellow" risk level, meaning hunters would be asked to voluntarily take fewer caribou, and only shoot male caribou.