There are now about 14,200 animals left in the herd, down from 700,000 to 800,000 in the 1980s — a decline of 98 per cent over two decades in what was once the largest caribou herd in the world.
Thomas Shea remembers a time when caribou were plentiful in the Kuujjuaq, Que. area.
“The land had veins everywhere, of trails of caribou,” says the president of Kuujjuaq’s Hunters and Trappers Organization. “Now those trails are no longer there.”
Shea places the blame squarely on commercial hunters, who he says kill large males for trophy antlers.
“The bulls are gone and they're not reproducing anymore,” he says. “It's very scary if we have to face that.”
He says an end to the sport hunt might be the only way to bring the George River herd back from the brink.
Legal win a ‘step in the right direction’
Earlier this month, the Quebec Court of Appeal found the provincial government violated treaty rights when it set caribou sport hunting levels and dates for the 2011-2012 season in northern Quebec in spite of objections from Inuit, Cree and Naskapi.
Quebec now has to pay damages to the three groups.
Tunu Napartuk, Kuujjuaq’s mayor, says that’s good news.
"This is one step in the right direction. There's preparations that we need to do in order to ensure that this herd continues to improve."
Napartuk says he's optimistic about the future of the herd.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government implemented a five-year ban on hunting caribou in Labrador in 2013 that remains in effect.
That ban included the aboriginal hunt.
But it applies only when the herd is in Labrador. The Newfoundland and Labrador government has no control over the animals when they migrate into Quebec.
A news release announcing the recent population survey says both provinces "have initiated discussions on the development of a joint management plan in collaboration with all resource users including aboriginal governments and organizations."
‘More should have been done sooner’
Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo says more should have been done sooner to protect the herd.
She says the caribou are culturally important and a critical food source for Labrador Inuit.
Leo says governments need to invest in finding out why the herd is dying out so quickly, and she hopes it's not already too late.
“Up until the province called a ban two years ago there was no real management plan for the George River Caribou herd, so I think the numbers fell quickly. But more should have been done sooner. And let's hope we can come up together with a really strong management plan that works for everyone.”
Leo says calving grounds in particular need to be protected.
She says all the stakeholders need to act now to preserve what's left of the herd.
Labrador Innu chief: hunting ban not the answer
The newly elected Innu nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee says a hunting moratorium is not the answer.
She says there are many issues at play in the decline of the herd, including mining, hydroelectric development and climate change, and the government needs to look at the bigger picture instead of focusing on hunting.
“One of the elders said to me very clearly, he said ‘if they take away the caribou away from us,’ he said, ‘we are left to starve.’ So to me that needs to be discussed more and like we've said we've offered a management plan with the province, and to work with them, so a moratorium doesn't solve the issue.”
Qupee says the Innu Nation has imposed guidelines within their own communities and they have guardians who supervise the caribou hunt.