Concerns about dwindling caribou herds in Canada and elsewhere have brought more than 400 delegates to the 13th North American Caribou Workshop in Winnipeg this week.
Biologists, hunters, government officials and aboriginal representatives from across Canada are among those at the workshop, which began Monday and runs until Thursday. Delegates have also come from the United States, Greenland, Norway and Germany.
The North American Caribou Workshop is held every two years and usually attracts about 200 people, said program chair Micheline Manseau. This year's attendance is more than double that number.
"There's the science, there's management, and the aboriginal perspective — and their role as well — in research and conservation," Manseau, an ecosystem scientist with Parks Canada, told CBC News.
Manseau said this year's conference may be different from previous gatherings "and maybe a little bit more comprehensive in terms of really bringing a whole range of perspectives."
Found across Canada
In Canada, caribou can be found from Newfoundland and Labrador to British Columbia, all the way up to the High Arctic islands. Some herds have provided an essential food source to generations of indigenous peoples, many of whom have noticed the numbers getting smaller.
"Caribou's in decline in this area, caribou's in decline in that area, so there's this prediction that all caribou will be in decline," said Gabriel Nirlungayuk, the wildlife director of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the Inuit land-claims organization in Nunavut. "So it is a concern."
Factors cited as possible explanations for the decline include oil and gas development, mining, big-game hunting, climate change and even the migration of caribou to other areas.
But whatever the cause, aboriginal groups say the shrinking number of caribou is having an impact on people who rely on the herds.
"Our elders, you know, their diet is mainly on traditional food," said Archie Catholique of the Lutselk'e Dene First Nation in the Northwest Territories.
This year, the Northwest Territories government imposed an emergency ban on hunting caribou from the Bathurst herd after its size dropped substantially. A management plan for the Bathurst caribou herd has yet to be completed.
Similar concerns about the Porcupine caribou herd in neighbouring Yukon resulted in similar hunting restrictions.
The North American Caribou Workshop is organized by Manitoba Conservation, Parks Canada, the University of Manitoba and several other groups.