Migratory caribou, such as Porcupine caribou, can cover up to 2,400 km each year, but the health of the herd is threatened by possible oil and gas development in ANWR near the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. The Gwich’in people of Yukon, NWT and Alaska depend on the caribou for their cultural, physical and spiritual sustenance. (Peter Mather/Yukon News)

Facing similar threats as the Porcupine herd, George River caribou in severe decline

‘We have no idea if they will recover’

As environmentalists and Gwich’in on both sides of the border protest proposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge which may threaten the Porcupine caribou, the declining numbers of barrenlands caribou in the eastern half of the country provide insight into the fragile complexity of this species.

The George River caribou herd occupies a swath of territory in the Ungava region of northern Quebec and Labrador. In the 1980s and 1990s, the herd was considered the largest in Canada, with a population of more than 800,000 animals, says Laval University caribou biologist Steeve Côté. At this size, the herd migrated over more than one million square kilometers of territory, he says.

However, researchers began noticing a decline in numbers in the 2000s. In 2010, the population had dropped to 74,000. By 2012, that number had fallen to 14,500. Now that number has plummeted to 9,000 animals, representing a nearly 99 per cent decline. The lowest recorded numbers that historical and oral records can point to, he says, are between 70,000 and 100,000 animals.

Côté says this is significant not only because of the rapid speed of the decline, but the sheer size of the drop. Nine thousand animals would be considered a healthy herd in other populations, he says.

The Porcupine herd is considered very healthy, with about 200,000 animals.

The George River herd’s decline was casued by a number of factors, but basically, the caribou degraded their habitat, putting pressure on their food supply, at their peak in the 1980s and 90s, Côté says.

The range of caribou herds tends to spread out as their populations grow, which may mean moving into areas with lower-quality food, he says. This leads to lower rates of reproduction. Because the caribou population is already at a high, the concentration of predators, such as wolves, is also high. It takes time for the predator population to drop, but in the meantime, all those predators exact a steep toll on the remaining caribou.

Now, Côté says, there are almost no wolves left in the area, and the population continues to decline. While caribou populations do fluctuate and this is entirely natural, he says, the dramatic drop in population in such a short span of time seen in the George River herd points to other factors at play to describe such a huge crash.

“I hesitate to use the word ‘cycle,’” Côté says. “We have no evidence that they are cycling…. They’re not like lemmings.”

Caribou are extremely sensitive to development, avoiding roads, lights and other infrastructure commonly associated with resource extraction. The sheer size of their range and their complex needs make them vulnerable to a domino effect, where pressures which might be minor on their own compound to cause population declines. Something like this is likely the case with the George River herd, says Côté.

This is one of the main concerns Brad Griffith with the Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit has for impact of oil exploration on the Porcupine caribou. Griffith says the most important thing for caribou was to allow them freedom of movement. Caribou can usually find a way to deal with one issue, he says, but when issues begin piling up, eventually they run out of options.

“At some point there are forests, at some point there are oceans,” Côté says. “Space is ultimately limited.”

While there is no oil extraction happening in the Ungava region, there is a large mining sector, particularly for nickel and rare earth elements.

Côté says the George River caribou, like the Porcupine and Central Arctic herds in Yukon and Alaska, tend to “avoid roads.”

“Caribou tend to avoid all this infrastructure, up to 20 kilometres,” he says, though he adds the George River herd’s population crash does not appear to be “directly” related to mining.

“(But) we know that they are being impacted by human disturbance.”

Similar to the Porcupine caribou, the George River caribou are of great importance to the First Nations and Inuit who share the land with them. Seven different Indigenous groups have traditionally hunted the George River caribou herd, Côté says.

Conflicts have arisen in recent years concerning this traditional use, with calls to limit or ban subsistence hunting.

Côté says he fears that, if subsistence hunting continues, the George River caribou may go extinct. But he recognizes it’s difficult to ask First Nations and Inuit to stop hunting. Similar to the Vuntut Gwitchin in Old Crow, many of these communities subsist on caribou, and food prices for goods brought up from down south are extremely high.

“It’s incredibly difficult (for the First Nations and Inuit). The caribou are their life, it’s their culture, it’s everything to them.”

As the CBC recently reported, First Nation and Inuit groups signed a management plan for caribou in the Ungava Peninsula Oct. 17 in Montreal.

The plan, entitled A Long Time Ago In The Future: Caribou and the people of Ungava, was put together without federal or provincial effort after the Indigenous groups grew frustrated with what they feel has been ineffective and slow efforts by the government to save the caribou. The 55-page document formalizes monitoring and management of the herd.

The agreement encompases both the George River herd and the Leaf River herd, whose numbers have also dramatically declined in recent years. Quebec recently banned all sport hunting for the Leaf River herd in 2018.

On this side of the country, the Vuntut Gwitchin are preparing to meet with their Gwich’in relatives from the Northwest Territories and Alaska in Fairbanks Nov. 8 to Nov. 10 to discuss strategies for dealing with the threat of drilling in the Porcupine caribou herd’s winter calving grounds.

In the meantime, says Côté, the decline of the George River herd seems to have slowed.

“We have no idea if they will recover,” he says. “There will be a few years of decline yet.”

“This corner of the world is pretty wild and remote. I think they will rebound here but it’s hard to say how long that will take.”

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

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