Some basics on the barren ground caribou and its Manitoba connections

The caribou have shrunk in range, and in numbers; the Beverly herd is now absent from this province.

by Ross Thompson

reason-caribou-decliningMy August article, Tuktu Tales, featured co-management of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq barren ground caribou. I want to tell you more now about these caribou, how information is gathered and what it tells us.

The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds get their names from the nearest lakes where they have traditionally calved in Nunavut. Historically, the Qamanirjuaq caribou ventured deep into northern Manitoba, wintering as far to the south and east as Gillam, even mixing with a resident herd of caribou south of Churchill.

Today, the caribou have shrunk in range – not a good sign – so the Qamanirjuaq herd usually winters around Tadoule Lake, occasionally venturing close to the South Indian Lake area. The Beverly herd is currently absent from northwest Manitoba and rarely shows up in northern Saskatchewan.

There are two schools of thought about the Beverly herd. Theory one is that it has disappeared. The other is that it has merged with several others and relocated its calving ground south of the Queen Maud Gulf on the Arctic coast. Either way, this is a warning bell about herd survival.

Information must be gathered from many sources, because of the caribou habits, the large numbers, the vast area involved and the harsh climate. Trends, survey data and traditional knowledge all combine for management purposes.

In the 1980s, when I first became involved with the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou management board (BQCMB), the Qamanirjuaq herd was estimated to be nearly 500,000, and the Beverly herd well over 300,000. Now the numbers are under 300,000 for the Qamanirjuaq and just over 100,000 for the Beverly herd.

Reconnaissance surveys are done to find the caribou and assess trends and locations, in this way setting up for an intensive population survey.

Population surveys are expensive, costing almost $1 million and thus are not done annually. These surveys often involve three specialized aircraft, with an army of observers, navigators, pilots and technical and administrative staff. Many surveys have been altered, delayed, or cancelled because of unfavourable weather

Annually, field staff conduct composition surveys, getting amongst the caribou in the calving ground to get an estimate of the recruitment – the number of cows with calves. This is a key statistic because it enables calculations for recommendations on total allowable harvest and management actions.

Northwest Territories and Nunavut wildlife staff use GPS collars on cows to help pinpoint migration timing and routes and to verify calving ground use. Another expensive endeavour – the collars cost about $4,000 each.

Surveys tell us that barren ground caribou are declining on all their ranges across the globe. While many observers point out that caribou go through cycles, it is but one factor in a phenomenon called “cumulative effects”. One Inuit colleague said that their word for it means: “Things add up!!”

Manitoba Dene, Cree and Metis people from communities including Tadoule Lake, Lac Brochet, Brochet and South Indian Lake have had a close connection with the caribou and are the main current harvesters in Manitoba. We are all working hard on the latest management plan to ensure they can continue to rely on caribou to sustain their traditions, lifestyles and economy.

The plan guides priorities of the board until 2022. It describes how the BQCMB will work with governments, communities and others to protect the caribou herds and address caribou conservation issues. In the short term, the BQCMB urges governments to put priority on regular surveys for population and herd movement trends. A 2017 Qamanirjuaq population survey tops the list!

Other priorities:

  1. Protecting important habitats. Calving grounds, post-calving areas and important migration corridors need to be designated and protected.
  2. Protecting caribou from disturbance. Caribou are very sensitive to disturbance from human activities and in many cases use up too much energy avoiding noise or visuals. Cows will abandon calves if disturbed for short periods.
  3. Encouraging harvest of bulls and use of the entire animal, not just choice parts.
  4. Encouraging traditional harvest of predators. Harvest of bears and wolves by community hunters can provide local income and ease pressure on the herds from predators.

All the above steps are seen as an investment to protect the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq barren ground caribou resource worth $20 million annually in meat value, by-products and traditional lifestyles, mostly for aboriginal people in Manitoba, Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Northwest Territories.

I will take a page from Henry Ford’s motivational insight about teamwork:

Coming together a beginning – the BQCMB has been there, done that.

Keeping together, progress – amen since 1982.

Working together – success! We all need to do this. The caribou need and deserve our best efforts, especially now!

Ross Thompson is executive director of the BQCMB. Reach him at caribounews@outlook.com.

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