Most of the great Canadian migratory caribou herds have declined to tiny remnant populations and are in a vulnerable state, and Earl Evans, chair of the Beverly Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board (BQCMB) is worried that faced with new challenges, their chances of recovery may be overwhelmed.
Evans said it is critical caribou are well managed and protected for the long term, but particularly now when they have small populations and are vulnerable. The health of the caribou herds is very important to indigenous Northerners, he said, to culture and to their everyday lives. He advocates that all hunting stop completely to give the herds the chance to recover.
Evans quotes one study that determined the food value of the annual caribou harvest for the Beverly, Qamanirjuaq and Ahiak herds alone is close to $20 million if replaced with the equivalent volume of hamburger meat.
“That is not even the good cuts of meat – just hamburger,” he said.
The greatest threat to caribou that is manageable is human activity. Evans said mineral exploration and development disrupt both calving activity and migration. Exploration and new industrial sites disturb the animals and winter roads are a problem because they create a “linear barrier.” Studies have shown the long berms on iceroads deflect caribou migration. Worse still, a continuous line of trucks like the ones now supplying the diamond mines north of Yellowknife cause constant noise and create snowdust. In the two month re-supply period between now and springtime, 8,000 loads will be hauled on the winter road that crosses the migration route of the Bathurst Herd. It now numbers fewer than 20,000 animals and continues to decline. Since all the trucks return empty, the total is 16,000 trips to and from the mines in a two month period.
Evans said roads to industrial developments provide hunter access, which can have a huge impact on herd numbers if hunting is not limited responsibly. Every time a winter road goes in, hundreds of animals are taken, further depleting the herds and hurting their chance of recovery.
The way hunting is carried out will have a long-term impact on the animals, as well, Evans stated. Trophy hunters take the biggest, healthiest bulls, which are the best breeders. Indigenous hunters pick off the fattest, healthiest cows. When a herd numbers in the hundreds of thousands, the impact is not significant, but when herd numbers are diminished as is the case now, the gene pool is impacted. He said it is like selective breeding except the animals are being “backwards bred” over time. He quotes a European study where after 30 years of that kind of hunting, weaker, smaller, more disease prone animals resulted.
Internet sales in Nunavut have become a new problem, Evans said, where people buy and sell caribou online. Someone can post a shout-out for caribou in Iqaluit – say they want to buy three cows – and a hunter will jump on his snowmachine in one of the communities that is near a herd and go out and shoot the animals right away. Two airlines in Nunavut offer discounted air freight for backhauls so there is good money to be made for the hunter. Evans said thousands of pounds of meat is being delivered this way, all of it legal – as many as 2,000 animals in a couple of months.
The number of predators that feed on the caribou also seems to be high, observed Evans. He said he was amazed at the number of predators – bears and wolves – following the caribou right into the calving grounds of the Beverly Herd. That herd has now been deemed extinct after the last cows in the remnant population relocated to join another herd to the north, seeking safety in numbers.
He described one incident where a wolf was seen killing ten young caribou in a short space of time by shaking them to snap their necks. Then it dragged one off to the den to eat and left the rest for later.
Evans said 52 wolves were seen in one pack near the Saskatchewan-NWT border and a pack of over 70 wolves was counted by chopper on the north coast.
“It would take a lot of caribou to feed that many wolves,” stated Evans.
He said there are large numbers of grizzlies on the range as well. He saw 15 grizzlies within an hour of flying in the Beverly range.
Climate change is bringing new problems to the animals. He said melting permafrost in some areas the animals traditionally travel had melted, bogging them down in mud. He said rain in mid-winter coats the lichen they feed on with a crust of ice and the animals can cut their hoofs trying to get at it. He said because the range where they migrate may now stay wet, their hooves do not heal, resulting in a disease called foot rot. He said Inuit hunters have reported thousands of animals limping as they travelled, trailing at the back of the herd, being picked off by predators.
Temperatures in summer mean more biting insects for a longer period of time, which means calves can be swarmed and die. Since climate change is new and coming on so fast, the overall impacts are unknown, and could be devastating.
Drastic population declines are not unusual for caribou herds. Numbers can rise and fall dramatically over time. The George River Herd that calves in northern Quebec with its winter range in Labrador, decreased in size in the 1950s to roughly 5,000 animals, but recovered to about 800,000 animals in the 1980s. It is now in decline again, back down to about 10,000 animals. The Porcupine Herd with its calving ground on the Alaskan North Slope and winter range into Yukon is actually increasing in size after its numbers dipped in the late 1990s and is now up to nearly 200,000 animals. All other herds have suffered steep declines, however.
Evans told the Journal that negative impacts on caribou causing a significant drop in herd numbers are very complex and it is difficult to pinpoint any one cause. The quality of lichen they feed on and how available it is on their range is critical, and drought like that experienced in the North in recent years can change what vegetation grows. If they can’t eat well, they are not robust and then the cows won’t have calves.
“If a cow is skinny it won’t go into heat so it won’t get pregnant. If that happens to all the cows, the herd shrinks.”
Evans said the newfound health of the Porcupine Herd may be due to better weather conditions in its range, but it is also likely because there are no roads in the region except for the Dempster Highway that provide hunting access, and the animals seem to be smart enough to avoid the highway during migration.
Evans, a lifelong Métis hunter, says the future of many of the caribou herds hangs in the balance and it is critical that every effort be made to conserve them. A lifelong hunter himself, Evans stopped harvesting caribou several years ago and is now focused on conservation to bring the herds back, “so we can hunt them again and so our grandchildren can hunt them.”