Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut March 04, 2016 - 6:59 am

Another Nunavut caribou herd faces decline

GN trying to track Kivalliq meat shipments, but airlines not cooperating

STEVE DUCHARME
One of the largest caribou herds in North America, the Qamanirjuaq, is located in Nunavut's Kivalliq region. Conservation groups, and GN Department of Environment staff, are warning of the potential for future decline. (PHOTO BY MITCH CAMPBELL)
One of the largest caribou herds in North America, the Qamanirjuaq, is located in Nunavut's Kivalliq region. Conservation groups, and GN Department of Environment staff, are warning of the potential for future decline. (PHOTO BY MITCH CAMPBELL)

The population of North America’s second largest caribou herd is on the verge of dipping below sustainable harvesting levels.

That’s according to the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board, which issued a news release March 1.

The Qamanirjuaq herd, which spans Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan, provides an estimated $11 million dollars in harvests annually, according to Nunavut’s environment department.

The location of the herd makes it the primary source of caribou meat for Kivalliq communities.

“We’re at a point now where we think its neutral. Right now we’re at a point where the number of animals going out of the population equals the number of animals going into the population,” said Mitch Campbell, a wildlife biologist for the Government of Nunavut.

The herd’s population dropped to 264,000 in 2015, according to GN surveys, down from 348,000 in 2009, and earlier estimates of 500,000.

And while harvests from the Qamanirjuaq herd remain stable, as the population contracts, the ability to replenish its numbers diminishes.

“We believe that the trend is probably going to turn to a negative in the coming years and that’s what we’re worried about,” Campbell said.

And GN environment officials are warning that if the herd continues to shrink for the next five to 10 years, dramatic intervention may become necessary.

For now, the GN is classifying the Qamanirjuaq herd’s depopulation as a natural cycle of growth and decline.

“Caribou naturally cycle up and down. The plant productivity is very low in their area. Eventually caribou will eat themselves out of house and home,” said Campbell.

But before the population rebounds, the herd becomes more vulnerable to human impact.

The situation is serious enough to prompt a round of consultations between GN staff and Kivalliq hunting and trapping organizations, with community visits scheduled to take place next week, from March 11 to March 18.

As the Qamanirjuaq herd becomes more vulnerable to excessive harvesting, HTOs and GN officials want to learn more about the extent and growth of caribou meat sales — over the internet, for example.

“We have had concern after concern after concern raised by HTOs across the region on the volume of shipments going out, but we have no concrete numbers of what that whole number is,” Campbell said, of the new practice.

The goal, said Campbell, is to prevent a repeat of the kind of internet-driven harvesting that occurred on Southampton Island which, along with disease, caused the herd to decline.

According to GN estimates, over a three-month period, hunters sold more than 1,500 Southampton Island caribou to Baffin Island buyers at the height of the island’s harvesting.

Baffin residents have been hungry for caribou meat ever since Baffin’s caribou population spiralled into severe decline, prompting the GN first to ban harvesting there and then to impose a small quota of 250 bull caribou annually.

A 2013 survey of Southampton Island revealed the population of caribou on that island was a meagre 7,286 — down from 30,381 in 1997.

To prevent the Qamanirjuaq herd from suffering the same fate, Campbell said the GN has been trying to arrange a tracking system for caribou meat with Nunavut’s airlines.

But the airlines don’t appear to be cooperating.

“We have sent in letter after letter to the airlines, and though we got some responses initially, we have had no responses back [for over a year]. This is coming from a very high level at the GN,” Campbell said.

“We would have liked it if they acknowledged it was a problem in this shipment of caribou meat across the territory, and it can increase the harvest in a time where we’d like to find ways of reducing it.”

Campbell stressed the airlines aren’t doing anything illegal, and beneficiaries are within their rights to hunt and sell meat as outlined in the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

But the GN is starved for data in this emerging online country food industry.

“Without being able to track it we don’t know how much damage it’s doing,” Campbell said.

The GN will continue to raise the issue with Nunavut’s airlines to establish a tracking system.

“[But] they’re not obligated to respond to our letters. We would have liked it if they at least acknowledged that this is an issue that probably needs work, but they’ve chosen not to do that.

“They’re within their rights,” Campbell said, but cautioned that “if we impact those herds we’re in really big trouble.”

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