12/23/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/21/2015 05:59 EST

Caribou hunt industry collapse still haunts northern Quebec

People who used to bring caribou hunters up to northern Quebec say the Great White North is tarnished by hundreds of abandoned hunting camps, many of which are bear ravaged.

The sport hunt on the George River herd was cancelled in Quebec in 2011 because the herd numbers had plummeted.

“It’s really unfortunate to see all these camps abandoned,” says former hunting guide Bernard Rossignol, “we had a lot of fun here, the hunters, and the staff."

Norpaq Adventures is an outfitting company that has been operating north of Schefferville since the 1980s.

The company used to bring about 400 hunters up north each year.  Now, they sell only about 25 fly-fishing vacations on the George River.

Pilot and co-owner of Norpaq Adventures, Samuel Paquet says there are about 600 camps in the north. He flew over a number of them last summer.

"Some camps are completely banged up, ripped apart, the bears come in." he says.

"And even if the bears don't come, there are drums full of fuel, there are doors that are open, camps fully equipped… It’s sad"

Paquet says most outfitters don't have the money to maintain their camps, and he says many don’t see the point as the industry has collapsed.

His father, Jean Paquet, the president of the company, says it is disheartening to see the abandoned camps.

"They are like stains in this magnificent place, the tundra," Jean Paquet says.

"That it's been let go like that, I think, I a little unacceptable…  They will have to be cleaned up, but who has the money for that, that’s a big question.’"

Paquet estimates it costs $4,500 for one return float-plane trip to one of his camps.

Quebec’s Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks spokes Jacques Nadeau says they are aware of the problem and are trying to find a solution they call "effective and sustainable."

Industry unlikely to start again

Biologists who study caribou say it is highly unlikely the George River herd will ever be able to sustain a sport hunt again.

The herd, which was once 800,000 caribou strong, now has fewer than 15,000 animals, a 98 percent decline over 20 years. 

A caribou researcher at Laval University, Steeve Côté, says herd numbers continue to drop, and they don’t know when it will stop.

Côté says they don’t know the exact reason for the decline, but suspect a number of factors such as a strain on the habitat, climate change and a high number of predators are to blame.

He says even if thousands of animals were killed each year, the caribou hunt was not one of the reasons that sparked the decline.

Côté says there is a glimmer of hope for the herd. Last October his team realized more calves survived reached the age of six months than had the past five years.

He says this year, about 30 calves for every 100 females survived, compared to seven to 15 calves in previous five summers.

“This was a really big jump,"Côté says.

"This is not high enough for the population to start to grow again. But at least it is better news."