Two years ago scientists feared northern caribou were the new cod — once-teeming stocks of wildlife that had sustained entire cultures but were at the edge of collapse.
Now, as scientists from around the world gather in Yellowknife to compare notes, biologists are beginning to see signs that the worst is past for an animal so central to the Canadian imagination it's on the back of the quarter.
"Our situation overall is looking a lot brighter than it did two years ago," said Jan Adamczewski, a biologist with the government of the Northwest Territories. "Those of us concerned with management of these caribou herds are breathing just a little bit easier."
About 230 scientists from around the circumpolar world are meeting this week at a conference held once every four years on Arctic ungulates. They'll talk about muskox and reindeer, too, but the recent changes in caribou are sure to be a large part of the agenda.
In 2009, nine of Canada's 11 northern herds were considered to be in decline. Biologists estimated the Bathurst population on the central barrens had fallen to 32,000 from more than 120,000 in 2006.
That was a 75 per cent implosion, a loss of nearly 90,000 animals in only three years.
But since then both the Cape Bathurst and Bluenose East herds have stabilized. The Bluenose East herd is back up over 100,000 animals. Yukon's Porcupine herd is approaching 1980s levels.
And preliminary surveys in 2010 and 2011 of the Bathurst herd hint the free fall may have bottomed out.
"It kind of looks like maybe we've turned the corner there," said Adamczewski. "There's a very slight indication that the herd may be starting to increase."
Hunting restrictions key: biologist
Factors such as climate change, which upsets the delicate timing of northern ecosystems, and industrial development, which takes out sections of their range, have been blamed for some of the decline. But the two biggest factors were poor calf survival and hunting.
Good weather for the last couple of years has decreased calf mortality. And Adamczewski points out that all the recovering herds enjoy one factor in common — hunting restrictions.
"I think we're fairly clear that in the later stages of the decline, the harvest did start to accelerate the decline."
In a recently published paper, Adamczewski and three co-authors estimated the annual aboriginal harvest from the Bathurst herd alone was between 4,000 and 7,000 animals, mostly cows. Best estimates suggest that about 20 per cent of the cows were being killed every year, making it the most heavily hunted herd in the N.W.T.
"They were getting hammered," Adamczewski said.
But when hunting restrictions came in, the Dene could no longer take as many animals as they wanted. It was a huge problem because caribou is on the supper table several times a week in the North and hunting is a central part of what it means to be Dene.
Resistance to the region's first-ever hunting controls was strong. Several aboriginal groups took the territorial government to court. Outfitters brought their own legal action after losing their caribou tags.
But in the end, most of the caribou management boards — composed of government and aboriginal representatives — brought in restrictions.
"We know those were very tough decisions," Adamczewski said. "But there was a sense that they needed to be made."
Biologists don't blame hunting alone for the decline of the herds. Caribou populations have always fluctuated rapidly — with or without human intervention. Climate change is altering the habitat to which caribou have adapted.
And industrial development is nibbling away at their once-unimpeded range. Research to be presented at the conference suggests caribou avoid an area within a 14-kilometre radius of a mine or energy development.
But Adamczewski said an uncontrolled harvest, with hunters using modern high-powered rifles, snowmobiles and GPS systems, has become one of the biggest factors in the way of a recovery.
"When you look at how quickly things changed once harvest was either closed or severely restricted, the proof is right there."