Nfld. & Labrador

Step up enforcement to protect Labrador caribou, Gerry Byrne tells Ottawa

Newfoundland and Labrador's fisheries minister says the federal government's plan for protecting caribou populations across Canada won't do much for herds in Labrador.

Byrne says report on Canadian caribou protection should outline unique Labrador circumstances

George River Caribou, spotted outside Nain late last year, have been experiencing dwindling numbers. (Submitted by Brandon Pardy)

Newfoundland and Labrador's fisheries and land resources minister says the federal government's plan for protecting caribou populations across Canada won't do much for herds in Labrador.

Clearly there are other forces at play causing this disturbance and decline- Gerry Byrne

Earlier this week, Environment Canada released a report on caribou protection, but Gerry Byrne says the plan focuses too much on protecting habitat — which he says isn't the problem facing the herds in Labrador.

"The future of these herds is very much in question. They could be exterminated. But right now the federal government is messaging that habitat is the sole issue," Byrne told CBC on Wednesday.

"Ninety-eight per cent of all habitat, the range of the caribou is Labrador, is pristine and intact. Clearly there are other forces at play causing this disturbance and decline. That's where the federal government can come in."

Gerry Byrne is Newfoundland and Labrador's minister of fisheries and land resources. (CBC)

Byrne said caribou populations go through natural cycles, and right now the George River that migrates between Labrador and Quebec is certainly at a natural low point.

However, he said compounding the declining rates is illegal hunting that needs to be addressed.

"What's troublesome is that while they're at the bottom of that trough, at their lowest levels in recent history, there is a lot of unsanctioned hunting going on," he said.

"That is causing a significant human-induced reduction in the overall viability, the integrity, of the herds. That has to be dealt with."

More enforcement needed

Several Indigenous groups have agreed to stop hunting caribou Labrador, but the Innu have said they will continue to hunt a limited number of animals based on their historic knowledge of the herds.

To deal with unsanctioned hunting, Byrne is suggesting the federal government intervene in provincial jurisdiction to bolster wildlife enforcement in Labrador.

The George River caribou herd has been in decline in recent years, and up to 900 were harvested last year. (CBC)

Byrne said Ottawa can do that through Section 11 of the Species at Risk Act, which allows the federal government to issue protection orders meant to stop the population decline. He said they could add to resources that already exist with the Canadian Wildlife Service and other federal enforcement agencies.

"This would not be an unwelcome intrusion. We would like to have the federal government," Byrne said.

"What we'd like to have happen is for those enforcement officials and that presence to be strengthened by additional resources from Ottawa. This is a trans-boundary herd, and this is a trans-boundary hunter. That's where federal presence could come in very big."

With files from Peter Cowan

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