Herd concerns postpone Labrador caribou season

Herd concerns postpone Labrador caribou season
The caribou hunting season in Labrador is indefinitely postponed due to concerns about the "stability" of the caribou herd. That decision was made just a few days ago by the Newfoundland/Labrador Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC).

The hunting season was scheduled to open Aug. 10, but a huge decline in the population brought about the decision to postpone it.

In July 2010, a census was taken on the George River caribou herd. The number of animals was estimated at 74,000 animals -- which might sound like a big number, but that's an 81 percent drop compared to 2001's 385,000 animals, let alone the all-time high of about 800,000.

Not only that, the DEC reported that ongoing research and monitoring since the 2010 census "suggest that a further population decline is occurring, despite major restrictions on harvesting that were implemented last fall." That limited hunt was strictly monitored, and if hunting is allowed this year it will be treated the same way.

The provincial government has stopped short of saying this season will be closed, in part because most hunters get their caribou in the winter. But right now, it doesn't look good.

The cause of the current decline hasn't been defined, but caribou herds go through periodic crashes that appear to start with one factor, like a fire or disease. The George River herd crashed about 100 years ago, and stayed small for decades.

It can also be related to habitat decline, as is the case with caribou in Alberta's oilsands region. That population has been declining for decades, and studies point to industrial development and fire being behind the "disturbance" of 75 percent of that herd's caribou range.

In its 2011 budget, Labrador allocated $1 million for implementation of a three-year Labrador Caribou Management Initiative, which the province hopes will result in answers. The Labrador Caribou Management Initiative...will assist us in achieving a sustainable future for this herd," said the Hon. Ross Wiseman, minister of Environment and Conservation.

"The conservation and protection of the George River caribou herd, as well as all wildlife and habitat in the province, remains a priority for our government, and we will delay the opening of the hunting season while we review the valuable input from stakeholders regarding the future management of the herd."

The caribou population in Canada is pegged at more than 2.4 million animals, but several herds are in decline. The big one is barren ground caribou, a northwestern subspecies that makes up about half the caribou in Canada. Their numbers have dropped by the mid-double-digit percent over the last 10 years or so. That's of major concern because native Canadian populations count on caribou for food, and caribou-related tourism (including hunting) brings in millions of dollars a year in tourism dollars.

Last but not least, caribou are important spiritually to native peoples.

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