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At its peak, the George River herd was a spectacle to rival Serengeti migrations. Huge numbers of caribou swept through Labrador each winter, providing native groups with a crucial source of food and cultural identity.

Less than 20 years ago, the herd was estimated at close to 800,000. But around the end of the Cold War it reached a tipping point. It grew too big for its range and began to collapse. The latest official estimate puts the George River population at barely 74,000 - down about 90 per cent.

"It's their meat for most of the year," said Darryl Shiwak, First Minister of the Nunatsiavut government, which represents the Inuit. "People have a real sense of urgency that something needs to be done."

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The specific figures are doubted by some native leaders, but the trend is clear. And the precipitous decline raises difficult questions about how to balance conservation with traditional rights - and whether it's wise, or even possible, to stop this decline.

The current situation is worrisome. Caribou go through cycles and this herd has crashed before, bottoming out about a century ago and remaining low for decades. Famine among natives has accompanied previous declines and, although that wouldn't be allowed now, there is increasing concern over how low the caribou will go this time.

"It's going to be devastating," said anthropologist Stephen Loring, with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who has done field work in Labrador with the Innu.

He noted that other traditional sources of food are increasingly less available.

"They're up the creek if they don't have caribou," Dr. Loring said. "Country food is just a gazillion times better than anything you can get in the store."

The herd was first surveyed by Tom Bergerud, the former chief biologist of Newfoundland and Labrador, who pegged it at 15,000 animals in the 1950s. Now retired, he warned that the caribou will have to find a natural equilibrium with their predators before starting to claw their way back.

"The wolves will [disappear]again, they can't live without the caribou," he said. "You'll break out of this [crash]for sure when the wolves are gone. The wolves were gone at 15,000. We don't have to go that low if the natives will shoot only the males."

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These are contentious points.

No one is talking, at least openly, about protecting caribou by targeting the animals that prey on them. And local natives, who have long relied on the caribou, view themselves as good guardians who use the resource respectfully. They don't necessarily trust what they hear from the government in St. John's and want a greater voice in management. Official appeals to set aside treaty rights and hunt less have met with limited success.

As the herd declines, calls for action can be expected to get louder. But interviews with numerous experts - people who are keenly sympathetic to the plight of caribou-dependent natives - laid bare the limited ability of humans to stop the crash.

Micheline Manseau, associate professor at the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba, believes that population fluctuations should be viewed as a "natural phenomenon" instead of a crisis demanding intervention.

"We don't want to manage them so much they lose what is natural," she said. "You have to be quite careful thinking [we]can control this. You have to be sure we don't screw it up."

These questions have gained widespread urgency in recent years as caribou herds plummeted across the North. The declines have led conservation groups such as the Canadian Boreal Initiative to call for a greater focus on habitat protection, arguing that the business-as-usual approach clearly isn't working, and scientists are trying to determine if there are overarching factors.

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Although the root causes are still up for debate, declines across the various herds have shown a familiar pattern.

The caribou typically come under pressure due to relatively minor factors, perhaps a big fire that reduces food supplies or a parasite that weakens the animals. Calves are born smaller and in fewer numbers. The population starts to creep down, increasing the impact of predation by both humans and other animals. A slow decline accelerates; anecdotal evidence starts to build; but scientific censuses can take years to confirm the decline.

In the case of the George River herd, it took firm evidence of precipitous decline for the government to clamp down on hunting by non-natives. It recently banned out-of-province sportsmen, halved residents' bag limit to one and ended the transferable-licence system that had allowed some people to kill dozens of animals.

Newfoundland and Labrador Environment and Conservation Minister Charlene Johnson said the new rules should result in a kill of about 5,000 this year. This does not include the native hunt, which she estimated at about 4,000 in a typical year.

"Because this is very socially and culturally important, we wanted to have a hunt … albeit very limited," she said.

Anne Gunn, a retired biologist who worked with caribou in the North for 30 years, said that hunting restrictions can slow the decline and help raise the odds of a recovery.

"Once caribou reach low numbers, you're kind of poised; it can go either way," said Dr. Gunn, who is still active with the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring & Assessment Network, a collaborative body that studies caribou and reindeer. "What we do during these periods of low numbers can have an effect on the rate of recovery."

She warned that managing a rebound is a long and difficult process and stressed the need to get all parties to the table. This allows the tapping of every source of knowledge and gives everyone a feeling that they have a voice, she said, reducing the chance that people will push hard to hunt again too quickly.

George River stakeholders all agree on the need for co-management of the herd. But defining how that will work and getting everyone onside will be difficult. Outfitters are upset with the new hunting restrictions, and native reaction to the latest survey numbers revealed deep fault lines in their relationship with government.

"It's better to sit down and negotiate instead of trying to superimpose a foreign set of regulations," said Chris Montague, president of NunatuKavut, formerly the Labrador Métis Nation.

He said that this year they are halving their self-regulated hunt to fewer than 200 animals. But only because of an excess of caution.

"My suspicion is the government did exaggerate the decline," he said.

Such accusations perplex Ms. Johnson, the minister responsible, who said that the data had been thoroughly explained to all stakeholders. But this skepticism was echoed by others.

"We need answers before we can even suggest a quota for Innu people," said band official Richard Nuna, who estimated they take 500 to 1,500 caribou annually. "We need information from the past censuses and how these censuses were conducted."

Mr. Shiwak said he and other Inuit leaders are consulting their people on whether to undertake a voluntary reduction in hunting. He did not have a current estimate of their hunt but said three years ago it was about 2,400.

"People … want to know how we can conserve but they still want to be assured that there can be some hunting," he said.

How low the herd will go and how long it will stay there is anybody's guess. And experts differ on whether the cyclical history is enough to assume that the caribou will bounce back again.

Dr. Gunn is also concerned that the decades-long cycles of the caribou mean they will be trying to recover into a world different than the one they inhabited previously. She points to the effects of climate change and said that the ever-increasing encroachment of development will pose a threat.

Biologist Jim Schaeffer, a professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., argues that we will need to give them room.

"This is the most mobile land animal on the planet," he said. " If we want to have that kind of magnificent migration, space is what we're going to have to provide."

But a dissenting voice comes from Dr. Bergerud, who called caribou "a very adaptable animal … not disturbed by people."

"They can come back if you manage wolves and you manage hunters," he said. "When everybody says how few can you get? I say one, as long as it's a pregnant female."

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