Thoughts on the George River caribou herd

Paul
Paul Smith
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Last week, I related to you a story of winter camping from my own personal experience. I received a few emails from people asking gear and logistic-related questions. These were folks thinking of braving the elements themselves, digging out camping stuff tucked away in storage bins many months ago.

There were also messages pointing out in no uncertain terms that my buddies and I might just be a tad crazy, turning our backs on cosy, centrally heated homes to sleep through a cold winter’s night in an unheated nylon tent.

We are all entitled to our opinions, and I fully appreciate that. In fact, I welcome emails of either criticism or support from my readers. It adds spice to column writing, so keep the emails coming. But for the record, I think shopping in crowded malls on a cold, crisp winter’s day is a wee bit looney.

Like I said, I love to hear from my readers, and nothing generates feedback like coyotes, caribou and salmon farming. Caribou and coyotes together in a tangled web of science, conservation, politics and gut feelings will fill my inbox every time. I’ve  expressed in the past only that I think there’s more to the woodland caribou decline on the island than just coyotes hunting them down and killing them. For daring to say that, I have been lambasted and royally told off. So be it; I have a thick skin. On the other hand, a bunch of people agreed with me as well.

This week, I have something to say about the precarious situation with Labrador’s George River caribou, and I’m expecting a few emails. Excuse me, I should say Labrador and Quebec, given that animals know nothing of provincial borders and migrate freely across, in the conservation context, these meaningless boundaries.

The George River herd once numbered in the hundreds of thousands — 800,000 animals, according to a 1980s census, I believe, at the time, the biggest herd of caribou on Earth. The latest science puts the herd at 20,000, with no reason to believe that numbers have stabilized. That is a drop of astronomical proportions and we really have no idea why it occurred. Predation, habitat destruct­ion and climate change are a few of the culprits mentioned. Nobody seems to think overhunting has been a contributing factor.

I doubt if coyotes are totally to blame. Sorry, but I couldn’t help getting that dig in to the individuals who have condemned me so strongly over the years for suggesting that something other than coyotes could be affecting our caribou numbers here on the island.

Seriously, I think that population dynamic issues like these are far more complex than most of us realize. Rarely is there one simple cause, like when a plane crashes. Usually it’s a combination of variables that lead to disaster.

The response of the provincial government, which is responsible for wildlife management, has been to issue a five-year total ban on the killing of George River caribou. There will be a review after two years to see if the population has improved enough for hunting to resume.

From the news I’ve read, my understanding is that both the Labrador Inuit, represented by the Nunatsiavut government, and the NunatuKavut Community Council, formerly known as the Labrador Metis Nation, have decided to temporarily suspend all hunting and comply with the ban. Actually, both these groups declared their intention to stop hunting before the government announced the official ban. I take my hat off to these organizations and their leaders for putting conservation first and for overlooking politics and old scores.

The ban on caribou hunting, although it seems a reasonable course of action, has met with stiff opposition from the Labrador Innu leadership. Simeon Tshakapesh, Innu band chief in Natuashish, has been most outspoken. I’ve heard him on all the open-line shows; most notable was his heated exchange with Randy Simms.

Tshakapesh says he and other Innu will keep hunting despite the ban. He says hunting and eating caribou is part of Innu culture, and stopping the hunt will interfere with their traditional way of life.

I agree with this and I fully support the Innu people’s right to hunt, but when a herd of animals is in such a desperate state, hunting should stop. Unless people are starving, with no other source of food besides caribou, long-term survival and stewardship of the herd must be the top priority.

Tshakapesh will agree to stop hunting when all mineral exploration and mining is halted. He says these activities affect caribou more than hunting, and if the Newfoundland government is serious about saving the caribou, it will take action immediately.

I also heard Prote Poker, grand chief of the Innu Nation, speak to Pete Soucy on the caribou issue, while I was tying flies one night last week. I have to say that Poker spoke eloquently and made some good points, but I still can’t agree with his viewpoint. He speaks of disruption of culture and I sympathize, but his assertion that the ban is unjustified holds no water.

When do we stop hunting? Soon it will be too late and the George River caribou will be no more. The Innu leaders say we do not know the cause of the decline, and that is true, but one thing is sure and certain: we cannot keep on killing caribou while we try to figure out the science. Each caribou killed is one less left to reproduce and reverse the decline.

Poker points out how the government has screwed up in the past on conservation issues, in particular northern cod. He is absolutely right; it was a colossal disaster, handled poorly by all levels of government. But another wrong will not fix the past.

Stop playing politics.

I heard one Innu lady speak on the evening news about the hunting ban. She said her family would not hunt caribou this year. God love her for speaking up for what she certainly must believe in very strongly. People of character stand up to be counted when their leaders are on a course that is disagreeable. I suspect that many Innu people feel like this lady. They are closest to the land and certainly care most of all about the George River caribou. In their minds, stewardship trumps politics.

I for one certainly hope caribou rebound both in Labrador and on the island. I hunted caribou for 10 years, but not anymore. I had planned to someday hunt in the Big Land. I have a few good hunting years left in my legs, so you never know.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed and praying that leaders and elected officials put aside their differences and work together for the good of the caribou.

Please, let’s not fiddle here while Rome burns.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every

opportunity. He can be contacted at

flyfishtherock@hotmail.com.

Organizations: NunatuKavut Community Council

Geographic location: George River, Labrador, Quebec Natuashish Rome

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  • Winston Adams
    February 10, 2013 - 11:04

    Paul, glad to see you address this issue. You say the Innu should not hunt the caribou unless they are starving. But how about hunger? How about ill health from lack of traditional food? How about unable to afford store bought beef, chicken or pork. A few years back some two thirds of the northern Innu community had a very low income, and were receiving social services. Not all Innu are in the same economic situation, and some may even sacrifice their health to save the caribou. You seem to let the government off the hook for their lack of research on the decline. So while industrialization is being promoted, environmental effects on the caribou is ignored. Even Nalcor is not studying the effects of the Muskrat Falls plan. You say each caribou killled is one less to reproduce. Now the Innu have voted to hunt 1 percent of the herd , but only males. A caller to Randy Simms this week suggested a male only hunt was acceptable. Randy replied " I don't see how two females can reproduce." And so Randy is intellegient? Like Randy thinks the caribou gets married, and the males are faithful to one female? I think the Innu are taking appropriate steps. And maybe if assistance is provided to offset the economic hardship for loss of caribou meat ,that more Innu may reduce the hunt further? Didn't Nflders receive billions in assistance for the loss of the cod?