Just a few years ago, Jim Holwell's family could count on him to bring home six caribou in a hunting season – all culled from the George River herd that ranges across the tundra and the boreal forests of eastern Labrador and northern Quebec.
That was when the George River caribou were abundant. Now the stocky animals, whose population peaked at close to 800,000 in the early 1990s, number fewer than 30,000. And, for the second year in a row, the Inuit of southern Labrador have decided they will not hunt them.
"Based on the direction from some of our hunters and elders, we decided that we would extend another year of the moratorium on hunting the George River caribou," Mr. Holwell, the vice-president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, which represents the southern Inuit, said in a telephone interview. "It's difficult. You are taking a big part of your diet off the table."
Last year, after previous short-term bans, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador decreed that there would no hunting of the George River herd for at least five years.
The Innu Nation of Labrador, who are First Nations people, refused to comply with the moratorium.
But the Inuit say they will not train their rifles on the beasts. "It's just a step that we thought was necessary to do our part in the conservation of the herd," said Mr. Holwell, who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Although woodland caribou are increasingly threatened across Canada as a result of industrial encroachment of their territory, the dramatic reduction in the George River herd appears to be mostly a natural phenomenon, if one that is not fully understood.
In 1958, they numbered about 15,000. Then their population swelled to the point that they became the largest herd of caribou in the world. When the animals are at their most populous, food is harder to find, their normal migration range of 3,000 kilometres doubles, and they become prone to parasites and disease.
The elders recall a time in the earlier part of the 20th century when there were far fewer caribou in the George River herd than there were 20 years ago, Mr. Holwell said. "They have seen it decline and they have seen it rebuild again. It seems like a cycle," he said.
But other factors have likely helped expedite the latest reduction, Mr. Holwell said: "Industry would be one of them." Logging and mining, and their infrastructures, have been blamed for the decline of various herds of caribou across Canada.
The Innu of Labrador, on the other hand, have taken a different approach. For them, this year's hunt has already started. Hunting the caribou "is very important to our people because our elders depend on it, on the meat, and they can't do without it because this is the main source of their diet …" said Prote Poker, the Grand Chief of the Innu Nation. "I brought in one caribou the other day and, by the time we cut it into pieces, it was all gone, all shared with the community."
Instead of the 1,200 animals they might have taken in previous years, the Innu are limiting the number of caribou kills to 300. "That is our conservation measure," Mr. Poker said. "We are concerned so we don't want to take as much as we have in the past years."
The Innu and the NunatuKavut Community Council are both members of the Ungava Caribou Aboriginal Round Table, which was formed by a number of aboriginal groups to preserve a number of caribou herds including the George River. There have been "frank and open discussions," the groups said in a statement last fall. But there has been no imposition of rules that would govern all communities.
Mr. Holwell said it is not his place to comment on what others decide to do. "All we can do is to encourage our members and do our best effort to help restore the population of caribou," he said. As for hunting, "we have to look at it in another year," he said. "I just hope that my children and my grandchildren will be able to do it in the next few years."