Nunavut wildlife biologists want to conduct the first extensive survey of caribou across Baffin Island as early as next year.
Officials with Nunavut's Environment Department are proposing the idea in Baffin communities this year, with the hope that a survey could begin in 2011.
"There's never ever been a population estimate for Baffin Island," Debbie Jenkins, the department's Baffin regional wildlife biologist, told CBC News.
Government biologists have already conducted helicopter surveys of caribou on northern Baffin Island in 2008 and 2009. In those surveys, a total 170 caribou were counted in an area spanning more than 80,000 square kilometres.
Jenkins said that seems like an alarmingly low number of caribou — and an estimate corroborated by anecdotes from local hunters and trappers organizations — but she said biologists need a more complete picture.
"What we don't know is if this is indicative of the population of caribou, or if it's just indicative of that small area," she said.
If it turns out the number of caribou from the existing surveys represents the island as a whole, Jenkins said conservation measures may have to be put in place.
"With good foundation information, we can go ahead confidently with the communities, with our hunters, to discuss what options we have ahead of us to implement in terms of conservation measures, management measures," she said.
But longtime hunters like Solomon Awa of Iqaluit said caribou populations are not necessarily in decline, but simply moving around the island.
"There's a reason for that — the vegetation took a long time to grow after they have eaten them," he said.
As an example, Awa said the northern Baffin Island hamlet of Pond Inlet was devoid of caribou when his family moved there in the 1970s. About 20 years later, he said caribou were abundant in the community, he said.
Last month, hunters in Pond Inlet told CBC News they have not seen caribou at their usual hunting spots this fall and winter.
In the meantime, Jenkins said her team is monitoring about 30 collared female caribou in northern Baffin Island, in order to see where they migrate and when.