01/29/2013 11:03 EST | Updated 03/31/2013 05:12 EDT

Innu of Labrador say they oppose government ban on caribou hunting

NATUASHISH, N.L. - The Newfoundland and Labrador government has imposed a ban on hunting caribou in Labrador to protect dwindling herds, but an aboriginal group says it plans to ignore the measure, citing traditions that stretch back thousands of years.

Prote Poker, grand chief of the Innu Nation, said Tuesday his people are in favour of conservation, but a total ban is going too far.

"We don't want to abandon our way of life," Poker said in an interview from northern Labrador.

"Our people are knowledgeable about the caribou. We've eaten it all our lives. We're not going to comply with the ban, that's for sure. We will take some caribou."

The 650 Innu in Natuashish and the 1,600 Innu living farther south in Sheshatshiu typically kill and eat about 800 to 900 caribou annually, he said.

Innu hunters have noticed that the George River herd has been shrinking, which is why there's a proposal on the table to cap the annual hunt at about 300. Poker said the idea will be discussed at a meeting among Innu leaders Wednesday in Sheshatshiu.

"(The hunt) is important because it's our way of life and has been for thousands of years," he said. "We can't give that up."

Poker said about half of the residents in the two communities eat caribou. To this day, the Innu hold a special ceremony every year to honour caribou. The event includes a community feast and sharing a meal made from crushed caribou bones and marrow.

The grand chief said caribou killed during a recent hunt appeared to be very healthy. As well, he said the Innu believe the population will soon rebound.

Earlier this week, the Newfoundland and Labrador government said a five-year ban was needed because the main Labrador herd has dropped to less than 20,000 caribou, a decline of 70 per cent since 2010.

"The George River herd continues to experience a very serious decline and strong action is required by our government," Environment Minister Tom Hedderson said in a statement.

"Our first priority is conservation of these animals ... A continued harvest is simply not sustainable."

While caribou populations are known to have a 50-to 70-year cycle, the reasons behind the most recent downturn remain a mystery. A monitoring program has revealed low pregnancy rates and a high adult mortality rate at about 30 per cent annually.

Meanwhile, Labrador's Inuit and Metis hunters have agreed to respect the ban. The Nunatsiavut government and the NunatuKavut Community Council have already endorsed the move for at least one year.

Justice Minister Darin King said in the government statement that the province will work closely with the RCMP and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary to "ensure the future is secure for these animals."

Messages with Hedderson and King were not returned.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said that Prote Poker is grand chief of the Innu in Natuashish. In fact, he is grand chief of the Innu Nation.