The government of Newfoundland and Labrador is spending $1.9 million to figure out why the population of the Ungava Peninsula’s George River caribou herd has plummeted from nearly 800,000 animals 20 years ago to a reported 27,600.
It’s money wasted, since the government already knows the answer.
As pointed out a year ago (excuse the repetition, but it’s obviously necessary), two decades ago the government had a caribou biologist on staff who accurately predicted that the herd could not sustain its record-high numbers and was about to collapse. Today’s biologists and officials who claim not to know why the population has fallen so far so fast should perhaps read their predecessor’s writings on the subject.
Stu Luttich (that being his name) was quite clear about what was about to happen and why.
“It will go down to a very, very low level, probably to less than 100,000 head,” he predicted, adding that the George River herd has shrunk to fewer than 10,000 animals in the past, but that its natural 60- to 70-year cycle usually has it bottoming out at around 50,000.
The question of why (the question that unaccountably still befuddles almost everyone connected with the issue today) was already answered.
Ideally, Luttich explained in an interview, the herd’s territory could comfortably support a population of around 300,000 individuals. However, once those numbers almost tripled, the habitat was no longer capable of feeding them all. The caribou had to range twice as far (from 3,000 kilometres annually to 6,000, according to Quebec government studies), but they kept finding less and less forage.
Starvation and exhaustion left them susceptible to disease and parasites. Death rates rose while birth rates fell. That continues today, meaning the now tiny population just keeps on shrinking.
What’s actually happening was Luttich’s worst-case scenario,
the one he once hoped that co-operation between the governments of Newfoundland and Quebec would prevent. Poor inter-provincial relations, as well as the two governments’ combative obsession with hydroelectric development, quickly dashed that hope.
Now, as Luttich predicted, the widely scattered survivors of the once-great herd seem too far apart to gather together to breed. It’s a scenario that could lead to the herd’s extinction.
“When you get that low, you can forget about hunting as we know it,” Luttich said in 1992.
Yet hunting continues. Last year’s partial cancellation of the non-aboriginal hunt did little good and there’s no guarantee that an upcoming meeting on the subject in Montreal between aboriginal and governmental groups from both Labrador and Quebec will do any better. As hunters are already discovering, the hunt has changed all by itself: you might be allowed to take an animal, but permission doesn’t matter if you can’t find any.
A lot has happened in the 20 years since Luttich was drummed out of government service for speaking his uncomfortable truth. By ignoring Luttich then, and by pretending today that they have no idea why the George River caribou herd is declining, Newfoundland and Quebec are able to do nothing to lessen the problem and everything to make it worse. The herd may be going through a natural cycle, but it no longer has nature to help it recover.
The last time its numbers got so low (in 1900 it shrunk to as few as 5,000) it still had all of its habitat intact, but today almost all of it has been carved up or lost.
Last year Newfoundland’s minister of Environment claimed that, “the conservation and protection of the George River caribou herd, as well as all wildlife and habitat in the province, remains a priority for our government.” However, the higher priority for both governments has always been the construction of large hydroelectric stations that have always harmed wildlife and destroyed their habitat. With all of the dams that have gone up on both sides of the border, the large migratory herd can simply no longer go everywhere it once roamed, eat where it once ate and calf where it once calved.
So, what’s the point of a
$2-million study? If the researchers confirm that the only way to protect the George River herd is by stopping industrial development in Labrador and northern Quebec, will the developers care?
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.