The Decline in Caribou Numbers and Hunting Opportunity

Overall numbers have dwindled, but hunting opportunities still abound.

Autumn 2017 marked the final season for caribou hunting in northern Quebec. One of my buddies, Mike Hagen, was out on the final hunt, so perhaps he has the dubious distinction of taking the last Quebec-Labrador caribou. Throughout my career, northern Quebec was one of the great places to hunt caribou—and the only place to hunt the Quebec-Labrador subspecies.

My first Quebec hunt was along the route of the George River herd. My later Quebec hunts targeted the Leaf River herd, which flourished as the George River herd waned. At one time, the George River herd exceeded 800,000, but by 2011 it had plummeted and sport hunting closed. Last year, the population estimate was just 15,000, but calf survival seems to be increasing. In 2011 the Leaf River herd was estimated at 430,000, but it had dropped down to 180,000 in 2016. That's a calamitous drop, but this is plenty of caribou to support nonresident hunting. The government of Quebec apparently had to take action, and revenue-producing sport hunting, not politically correct subsistence hunting, is the first to go.

In Quebec it's a moratorium, but it's not the only casualty as caribou herds decline across much of the continent. I was among the first nonresidents to hunt the Courageous Lake region in Northwest Territories, a caribou that later became known as the Central Canada barren ground caribou. Today this area is closed to nonresident hunting. Mountain caribou are in trouble in British Columbia, but holding in southern Yukon and the Mackenzies. Newfoundland's woodland caribou crashed but appears to be slowly recovering, and Newfoundland took the sensible approach of limiting the harvest rather than shutting it down. Alaska's caribou herds have their ups and downs, but overall appear to be more stable than across most of the North.

The Migration

Like many species, caribou tend to follow traditional migration routes from summer habitat to wintering grounds and then reverse. But migration routes can change. The migration of southern caribou in mountains and woodlands may be short, while the route of northerly caribou herds may cover hundreds of miles. The Quebec-Labrador herds occupy perhaps the largest area, some 600,000 square miles, and have the world's longest known migration of up to 3,000 miles.

Caribou hunters try to catch the migration, but a true caribou migration cannot be tied to one certain place or time. It happens for several weeks across a broad front of many miles. There may be large concentrations, but there are also countless smaller groups and leaders and stragglers traveling days ahead of and behind the main body, which is also spread out across miles and days.

Where Have All the Caribou Gone?

So what has happened? Northern peoples have hunted caribou hard for centuries. Inuksuk, their stone decoys, still mark the landscape. Even by conservative reproduction estimates, a herd of 180,000 could pass a half-million in four years and a million in four more. This isn't happening, and even the most profligate harvest cannot account for the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of caribou. Nor across the vastness of the North have there been more than a few instances of catastrophic encroachment by man. Predators are a factor, but caribous have survived the ebb and flow of wolves and bears for eons.

Craig Boddington carrying out caribou antlers

A possible answer is that in their harsh northern environment caribou eke out a fragile existence, surviving largely on slow-growing lichen and reproducing until they eat themselves out of house and home. Then they crash. Oral histories from older Native Americans suggest a possible 40-year boom-and-bust cycle. Our caribou are not all gone, and in time they will probably rebuild. And someday crash again.

The closure of the George River herd left some 600 caribou camps abandoned. Now the closure of the Leaf River herd will leave many more untended, inevitably to be worn down by winters, raided by bears, and strewn over the landscape. They are now blights on the northern landscape, but imagine the economic impact, the loss of employment from hundreds of camps and all the local industries that supported those camps.

This is a local issue for Quebec, but I think of it as a serious blow to North American hunting. The moratorium in Quebec is an almost unprecedented closure of a major North American big-game animal: the Quebec-Labrador caribou. "Almost" refers to our closure of Pacific walrus and Mexico's closure of jaguar hunting in the 1980s. In accordance with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, hunting has been essential to wildlife recovery and funding for management. The passing of caribou hunting in Quebec is thus a serious blow to conservation and to us hunters who dream and plan. In time the herds hopefully will rebuild, but with no camps and no outfitters, it will be a restart from ground zero.

The small, pale, and scarce Peary caribou of Canada's northernmost islands haven't been sport-hunted in living memory, and now we'll have to get used to the idea that we cannot hunt Quebec-Labrador caribou. This sounds gloomy, but there's still plenty of caribou hunting.

Opportunities from East to West

Newfoundland is the only game in town for woodland caribou, typically a darker caribou with compact antlers. In 2017 Newfoundland allocated a total of 715 caribou permits by unit, with 265 for nonresidents. These are parceled out to Newfoundland outfitters in caribou-hunting units. Needless to say, the prices have gone up, but the quality is good and success is high.

Central Canada barren ground caribou have larger antlers than the woodland caribou, but not so large as Quebec-Labrador caribou to the east or the more western caribou. NWT is closed, but this caribou can be hunted on the mainland of Nunavut and in northern Manitoba. Nunavut's estimate of 750,000 caribou includes their island caribou. In addition to Central Canada barren ground caribou, Nunavut is the only place to hunt Arctic Island caribou, our smallest caribou, with most hunts conducted on huge Victoria Island in late fall, when the caribou have (theoretically) migrated from the harsh interior toward the southern coast.

The big, heavy-antlered mountain caribou is a "hunter's classification." We define them as being found in the Mackenzie District of NWT, southern Yukon, and northern British Columbia. All areas are still open, but odds are much better in southern Yukon and in the Mackenzies.

The largest antlers are grown by the barren ground caribou, found in 32 separate regional "herds" in Alaska and in northern Yukon. With an estimated 750,000 caribou, Alaska is the odds-on choice to hunt barren ground caribou. However, although I've purchased several Alaskan caribou tags, the only barren ground caribou I've ever taken was in north-central Yukon. A caribou in Alaska is now a mission, so in 2019 I'm hunting caribou on the Alaskan Peninsula, a small herd only recently reopened to nonresident tags.

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