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Caribou herds close to home a pretty sight, but conservation measures still needed

"I would really encourage the communities to not assume the population is abundant because [the caribou are] more accessible," said Nadia Saganash, senior advisor Cree-Quebec governance. 

Efforts to protect fragile George River and Leaf River herds working: Cree official

Leaf River caribou near the Cree community of Chisasibi on Nov. 16. Cree officials say conservation efforts are working and it is important not to over harvest. (L. George Pachanos)

Spectacular photos and videos of large and healthy looking caribou herds have been lighting up social media in northern Quebec Cree communities of late. 

The message from Cree wildlife officials to Cree hunters: enjoy the view, but continue to harvest responsibly, or not at all, to protect vulnerable populations.

"I would really encourage the communities to not assume the population is abundant because [the caribou are] more accessible," said Nadia Saganash, senior advisor of Cree-Quebec governance for the Cree Nation Government (CNG). 

Saganash spent 15 years as wildlife management administrator for CNG and still sits on the coordinating committee overseeing hunting, trapping and fishing.

She says the herds seen over the past few weeks around the community of Chisasibi are from the Leaf River herd and that while responsible harvesting is allowed, she recommends not over harvesting.

Population numbers for the Leaf River herd have been stable at approximately 190,000 for the last few years, according to Saganash. But that is still far away from their numbers in 2000, when the count was more than 600,000. 

The decline in the George River herd is even more drastic, down 99 per cent from its peak in the 1990s.

"The status of the George River herd ... it was sort of a red flag. People understood and took some precautions ... I think it helped a lot," said Saganash. 

2018 conservation measures still needed

In 2018, the Cree Nation Government put in place a ban on the Indigenous hunt of the George River caribou herd and also passed a resolution placing voluntary limits on the harvesting of the Leaf River herd. The sport hunt on the Leaf River herd has been closed since 2018.

The CNG also passed a resolution in 2018 condemning "unauthorized" hunting by other Indigenous groups on Cree territory and ordered an end to "unauthorized guiding" of outside hunters. 

Saganash said those measures are still in place and are still very much needed.

"We're going in the right direction by taking care of these populations and taking conservation measures. We need to continue to do that," she said.

Nadia Saganash is a senior advisor of Cree-Quebec governance for the Cree Nation government after spending 15 years as its wildlife management administrator. (submitted by Nadia Saganash)

Statistics released last month from Quebec's Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs (MFFP), show the George River herd has rebounded from a critical low of just 5,500  in 2018 to a little more than 8,000 in 2020. 

"This is the first positive inventory result for the herd since 1993," said a press release from the ministry.

The release attributed the increase to a large number of calves observed in July 2020, but said the number of adult George River caribou observed that summer was down by 27 per cent from 2016.

"The George River caribou herd's situation therefore remains fragile," said the release.

A series of population increases will be needed before any conclusions can be drawn regarding the survival of the George River herd. 

For Saganash, a complete hunting ban for the George River herd will be needed for the next few years at least.

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