A once-thriving caribou herd in Labrador that exceeded 800,000 animals in the 1990s is on the verge of collapse, with fewer than 9,000 remaining, biologists say.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government, in a dire statement released Monday, said the George River herd won't recover unless all illegal hunting is stopped.
A recent census of the herd shows the population could become extirpated in less than five years, which means the herd will become so small it will lose its capacity to recover.
The rapid decline has been caused by deteriorating habitat, poor food resources, predation and the effects of climate change, according to biologists in Quebec and Labrador.
A hunting ban was introduced in 2013 when it became clear the herd was in trouble.
A survey in July showed the population had fallen to 8,938 animals, a 37 per cent drop when compared with a 2014 census.
"This is tragic, not only for the ecosystem, but for the aboriginal people of Labrador and Quebec who have utilized this herd as a resource," Environment Minister Perry Trimper said in a statement.
"Our government is now assessing next steps to ensure the herd will be protected, and we once again call on individuals who value the herd to adhere to the current hunting ban."
Last year, Labrador's Innu Nation said its members would continue to hunt George River caribou despite warnings about rapidly declining numbers.
At the time, deputy chief Simeon Tshakapesh said hunting wasn't to blame, saying Innu elders have long preached conservation – and Innu hunters only take what they need.
In 2013, when the ban was introduced, the Innu Nation said it was in favour of conservation measures, but the group argued that a ban went too far, considering the Innu have been hunting caribou for thousands of years.
At the time, the group said the 650 Innu living in Natuashish and the 1,600 Innu living farther south in Sheshatshiu were typically killing and eating about 800 to 900 caribou annually.
Labrador's Inuit and Metis hunters agreed at the time to respect the ban.
The fate of Labrador's caribou herds has vexed the Newfoundland and Labrador government for years.
In 2009, then-provincial cabinet minister Kathy Dunderdale accused a group of hunters from eastern Quebec of killing almost half of the threatened Joir River caribou herd in southern Labrador.
That herd numbered only about 100 animals at the time.
Members of Innu bands in Quebec have long argued that they were never consulted about conservation measures – and they denied the minister's allegation.
In February 2007, the Newfoundland and Labrador government warned a 10-member party of Quebec Innu they would be prosecuted if they killed caribou in the Joir River area.
In 2006, conservation officers identified more than 30 caribou kill sites in parts of southern Labrador – all within zones closed to hunting.
In 2004, three Quebec Innu hunters who shot caribou from threatened Red Wine herd in Labrador were fined $5,000 each after arguing that they were motivated by the need to protect their inherent rights.