The provincial government says the continued decline in size of the George River caribou herd in Labrador makes it necessary to implement a five-year hunting ban. But at least one aboriginal group is not buying that story.
“We’ve been talking to our elders, and they did not agree to a total ban on our people,” said Prote Poker, grand chief of the Innu Nation. “We always favour conservation, but a total ban is not justified.”
According to the provincial government’s most recent census results, the size of the herd is now less than 20,000 caribou. That is more than a 70 per cent decline from the July 2010 estimate of 74,000. In the late the 1980s, the herd’s size was believed to be 800,000.
“The George River herd continues to experience a very serious decline, and strong action is required by our government to address the immediate and long-term protection of this important resource,” said Environment and Conservation Minister Tom Hedderson.
“Our first priority is conservation of these animals, and that is why we are imposing a total allowable harvest of zero on this herd.”
Hedderson said the ban will be reviewed in two years based on the herd’s status and health.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Felix Collins, who sat alongside Hedderson and Justice Minister Darin King at a news conference Monday afternoon, said discussions have taken place over the course of several weeks with aboriginal groups that traditionally hunt caribou. Some of those groups had already publicly discouraged their members from harvesting the George River herd.
Hedderson said that Nick McGrath, minister responsible for Labrador affairs, had recently held discussions with the Innu Nation on the matter. Poker confirmed that when speaking with The Telegram. He implied that the Innu Nation is not subject to such decisions ordered by the province.
“He called me this afternoon with that decision, and I said, ‘We’re not a part of that decision.’”
King said fish and wildlife enforcement officers are regularly monitoring the hunt in Labrador.
“We are conducting patrols with vehicles, snowmobiles and heli-copters. We also have additional resources at our disposal should the need arise. There is an operation plan in place with fish and wildlife, and it’s prepared to handle situations where we may have to deal with large groups of hunters.”
Poker knows what to expect if his people choose to not recognize the hunting ban implemented by the province.
“We anticipate that we will hunt and we will get charged for it. That’s the measure we will take, because we don’t condone this at all.”
Willing to reduce harvest
Poker said the Innu Nation is willing to reduce the number of caribou it hunts in the interest of conservation. In recent years, the group has killed approximately 800-900 animals annually.
That figure was down to 680 last year, and Poker said the Innu Nation was willing to limit its hunt to 300 caribou in 2013.
Caribou hunted by the Innu Nation is not sold, according to Poker, and the animal has important ceremonial value for the Mukushan — a communal meal of caribou meat.
“We recognize and respect aboriginal culture and traditions,” said Collins during the news conference at the Confederation Building. “But in this case, given the decline of the George River caribou herd, the need for conservation must be paramount.”
Reacting to the decline in size of the herd, Poker said elders within the Innu Nation pointed to past incidents of dramatic decline in wildlife populations that later rebounded.
Members of the Innu Nation harvested 70 caribou last week, and Poker said elders have commented on the quality of the caribou, believing they are healthier in comparison to recent years.
“They think the caribou is coming back.”
The 2012 fall classification data found five per cent of caribou in the herd were calfs and two per cent were large stags. Both those figures were down from the previous government figure for 2011 of 10 per cent and three per cent respectively.
Information from the caribou health-monitoring program also indicated that pregnancy rates were low in the herd, according to Hedderson.
Torngat Mountains MHA Randy Edmunds, a Liberal member, said the ban cannot be effective without involvement from Quebec, a province the herd navigates in addition to Labrador.
“I’ve always maintained that in the name of conservation, you need to get the stakeholders involved. There’s no mention of a co-management board.
“I think that’s the key. That brings the aboriginal groups and the governments to the table (and) gives that group the decision-making process.”