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Environment and Conservation
Executive Council
August 16, 2012

George River Caribou Herd Continues to Decline

Concerns continue around the sustainability of the George River caribou herd, following a census completed in July which estimates the herd currently stands at approximately 27,600 animals – a significant decrease from the 2010 census which indicated 74,000 animals. The recent census was conducted by biologists with the Department of Environment and Conservation and the Québec Ministry of Natural Resources, with support from both the Institute of Environmental Monitoring and Research and the Torngat Wildlife and Plants Co-Management Board.

“The results of this survey are very concerning and confirm our fears that we have not yet seen the bottom of this current decline, particularly when you consider this herd was estimated at 800,000 animals in the late 1980s,” said the Honourable Terry French, Minister of Environment and Conservation. “Despite the strict harvest management measures implemented in the last couple of hunting seasons, the results of the recent survey confirm that the George River herd is still declining at an alarming rate.”

Other indicators of the health of the herd, such as the number of adults dying each year in comparison to the number of calves that survive, suggest that the population decline is continuing and it is estimated the herd will likely be below 25,000 by October of this year. While the precise cause of the decline in the herd is uncertain, there is evidence that changes in the quality, quantity, and accessibility of food may have been a major contributing factor which initiated the decline. Other factors such as predators, disease, hunting, parasites, and the effects of climate change, may also currently be contributing to the decline.

“The recent survey of the George River caribou herd is certainly cause for concern, given the significant role that caribou play in the daily lives and culture of Aboriginal people in Labrador,” said the Honourable Nick McGrath, Minister for Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs and Minister Responsible for Labrador Affairs. “I must reiterate the importance of working together with Aboriginal organizations and interest groups to support long-term management measures for the future of the herd.”

In recent months, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has undertaken extensive consultations with Aboriginal groups and other stakeholders, including the Government of Québec, to seek input on the management of the herd.

“Our officials have heard from many Aboriginal groups and other concerned parties on the significance and importance of caribou to people of this region, both in Quebec and in Labrador,” said Minister French. “The current census information, along with other relevant scientific information, will be considered in concert with this important input in ensuring the appropriate management measures are implemented for 2012-13 and beyond. Our first priority is conservation of the George River caribou herd.”

Budget 2011 allocated $1.9 million for a three-year Labrador Caribou Initiative. The initiative involves enhanced data collection of the George River caribou herd to help better understand the factors affecting the caribou population. The George River caribou herd migrates between Newfoundland and Labrador and Québec with both provinces responsible for management.

Further information regarding the herd and the census completed in July 2012 can be found in the backgrounder below.

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Media contacts:

Melony O’Neill
Director of Communications
Department of Environment and Conservation
709-729-2575, 689-0928
Carol Ann Carter
Director of Communications
Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs
Labrador Affairs
709-729-1674, 631-9505



Frequently Asked Questions Regarding George River Caribou Herd

What is the current population of the George River caribou herd and how has it changed from previous years?
A photo census survey was conducted jointly by biologists from the Department of Environment and Conservation and Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources in July 2012 which estimates the herd at 27,600 animals. These results represent a 63 per cent decline from a previous census estimate of 74,000 in 2010, and a 93 and 96 per cent decline from similar census estimates of the herd in 2001 and 1993 respectively. Population projections based on the death rate of adult collared animals, as well as information on age and male versus female ratios collected during fall classification surveys, indicate that the population may reach less than 25,000 animals by fall 2012.

What methods were used to survey the herd?
A post-calving photo census was the survey method utilized for the George River herd, the same method used in the 1993, 2001, and 2010 censuses. This method relies on the formation of dense groups of caribou in July, approximately one month after calving. Caribou often form dense groups on hilltops, in an effort to find relief from biting insects. A marked sample of caribou with satellite/radio collars is used to locate caribou groups. Once located, caribou groups are photographed with high resolution digital cameras from helicopters and are later counted on the photographs. The marked sample of satellite/radio collared caribou in the photographed groups is used to estimate the total number of caribou in the population.

What is the confidence level for the 2012 population estimate?
In this particular survey, there is a 90 per cent confidence rate that the population estimate for the George River herd is between 24,900 and 30,400. This level of accuracy is above normal standards for population estimates of this type.

The confidence interval (CI) for the population estimate of 27,600 is + 10 per cent. The CI is a measure of the reliability of a statistical estimate, and the width of the confidence interval provides the degree of certainty regarding an estimate – the narrower the confidence interval, the more certain the estimate.

Besides the post-calving survey, what other factors point to a decline in the herd?
Low calf survival measured during both the recent census and past fall classifications, low adult survival measured from collared caribou, reduction in the size of the calving area, as well as observations from user groups, all support a significant decline in the George River herd. Preliminary estimates of the adult death rate for 2011-12 indicate that the number of adults dying each year is higher than previously thought – greater than 30 per cent. The number of calves measured during fall counts in 2010 and 2011 is one of the lowest on record at 17 calves/100 females.

In addition, the percentage of large males in the George River caribou population remains very low (three per cent), compared to past years (10-19 per cent in the early 2000s). Low numbers of large males may reduce breeding success, as younger males may not be competent breeders or may be avoided by females.

What is the cause of the decline?
The George River caribou herd has gone through extreme fluctuations throughout history, not unlike caribou populations in other parts of North America. When the number of adults dying each year exceeds the number of calves that survive, there will be a decline. The cause of a high adult death rate and low calf survival rate that was responsible for initiating and continuing the decline is unknown, but there is some evidence that changes in the quality, quantity, or accessibility of food may have been contributing factors. Other factors such as human harvest, predators, disease and parasites, and the effects of climate and/or human-related influences on the landscape create a complex series of interactions that contribute to a population decline. At population lows, these factors can have a greater effect and lead to a further and accelerated decline. Although hunting is not likely the factor that initially contributed to the decline, as the population becomes smaller, it is clear that hunting is currently adding significantly to natural mortality, leading to a faster decline and impeding recovery efforts. Differences between current and historic climate conditions, land use practices, and hunting methods provide further need for caution when managing for the future of the George River herd.

How will the George River caribou population be monitored in the future?
In April 2011, the province launched the Labrador Caribou Initiative, providing $1.9 million over a three-year period to increase biological monitoring and research efforts, assist with education and stewardship programs, and allow for the formation of stakeholder, advisory groups, and technical committees, as well as the development and implementation of a management plan for both the short and long-term conservation of the herd.

Biological indicators of herd health will continue to be monitored, including such things as calf mortality rates, adult (male and female) mortality rates, sex ratios, body condition indices, age distributions, diseases and parasites, and population numbers. This data will be collected from a combination of classification surveys, collared caribou, and the collection of biological samples. Traditional knowledge from different user groups will be incorporated into the monitoring program along with data from collars to measure movement patterns, distribution, and habitat use by George River caribou.

What management actions are necessary for this herd into the future?
When a herd is declining, it reaches a point where hunting has serious negative impacts. Harvesting caribou when herd numbers are low and declining will make the population decrease further and faster so that it would take many years to recover. Considering a female caribou can produce a calf almost every year once she has reached maturity, removing just one caribou from the population can mean the loss of many more caribou that could have contributed to the future recovery of the herd. The Provincial Government has initiated extensive Aboriginal and stakeholder consultations during the last few months to engage with Aboriginal and other interested parties, including the Government of Quebec, on the status and management of the herd. A decision on future management will consider recommendations and input of all users, as well as biological concerns necessary to ensure sustainability of the herd.

Will there be hunting on the George River herd this year?
The Newfoundland and Labrador Government is working closely with Aboriginal groups to address conservation needs for this season and into the future. Separate consultations with all Aboriginal groups, in addition to input through the GRCH Advisory Committee comprised of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal stakeholders, have occurred and will continue into the future. These discussions are valuable to update user groups regarding current population status, incorporate traditional knowledge, provide advice for future management options, and develop solutions to current management challenges.

2012 08 16                                                           12:05 p.m.

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