Nfld. & Labrador

Feds consider listing Labrador caribou herds as at-risk species

Alarming drops in caribou numbers are fuelling concern over how to best approach conservation — without affecting Indigenous harvest.

Conservation official says the designation would offer more protection to dwindling herds

The federal government is considering whether to add two Labrador caribou herd to the Species at Risk Act. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Conservation officials are trying to figure out how to reverse dwindling caribou numbers in Labrador without impeding Indigenous food supplies, and say the next step could be listing the species on the federal Species at Risk Act.

In recent years, the George River and Torngat herds have shrunk to alarming levels, and five years ago the province brought in a ban on hunting the animals in Labrador.

But that hasn't stopped people from harvesting the animals anyway. 

The Innu Nation continues to hunt, and took about 100 animals last year. 

In the early 1990s there were an estimated 800,000 caribou in the George River herd. In 2018, that number has plummeted to below 5,500.

Federal, provincial, and Indigenous governments are grappling with the decline and want a solution, but have disagreed on what that solution entails.

Last year, a federal advisory group — the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada — recommended the animals be declared endangered.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government refused, saying instead it would work with Indigenous groups to come up with a joint management approach to keep the numbers of the two herds from shrinking ever further.

Now, federal officials are visiting northern communities to discuss next steps. 

One of those possibilities, says conservation planner Andrew Boyne of the Canadian Wildlife Services, is labelling the caribou "at-risk."

People in some areas of Labrador's north coast say the hills used to be blanketed in caribou. (John Gaudi/CBC)

The umbrella term would trigger more protections for the caribou, and includes the designation "endangered," as well as "threatened" and "special concern."

Those protections include a report on critical habitats and a detailed recovery strategy, plus funding for conservation groups.

It may also impose limits on harvesting on federal lands, but Boyne says that doesn't necessarily mean an across-the-board hunting ban. 

"We want to ensure that harvest doesn't impact the recovery or survival of the species," he said. "There may be ways harvest can continue."

Boyne said the public consultations have been ongoing since January.

"The general overall theme is, people are worried," he said. 

"Caribou go through boom and bust cycles. Now the population is going through one of its natural declines, but we're not seeing that decline start to slow."

With files from Labrador Morning

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