Catastrophe is a word that only really means something when it happens to you, or to someone you know.
I can’t say that I really “know” the George River caribou herd of Labrador and Quebec, having not visited them since 1991, but when I read they are in “catastrophic decline” it strikes a chord. Hunting those caribou in 1986 was my entry into the world of serious big-game hunting. The knowledge that the herd is, to all intents and purposes, no more, is an emotional blow.
It’s one thing to read about the demise of bison on the Great Plains. That is merely history. To read about the rise, decline and fall of a species within your own hunting lifetime — well, that is something else again.
The George River herd roams the vast expanse of interior Quebec — an area twice the size of Texas — calving on the Labrador coast, spreading across the province to Hudson Bay during the summer, then returning to Labrador in the spring to start it all again.
In 1955, it was small, estimated at about 5,000 animals. At that time, this was considered a safe number, since the herd had been feared to be heading for extinction in the 1920s. From 1955, however, it began an almost biblical increase. By the mid-1980s, the caribou numbered half a million and rising. Hunting caribou in Quebec became the out-of-state trophy hunt that anyone could afford. Hunting camps sprang up throughout the Quebec wilderness, the limit was two bulls per hunter, and airlines were laying on special flights from Montreal to Schefferville, the former mining town and jumping off point to the hunting camps.
By the late 1990s, the George River herd was estimated at a million animals, but serious problems were emerging. The land around the calving grounds had been eaten clean, the migration was erratic, a “catastrophic decline” was in the offing. And so it came to pass.
After 1999, herd numbers plunged. Wildlife census estimates dropped to 500,000, then 100,000. By 2010, it was 25,000, and two years later, 14,000. Quebec stopped the non-native hunt altogether in 2012. Native people in the area either refused to accept the numbers or stood on their treaty rights to hunt as they chose. Meanwhile, the numbers kept dropping.
In 2016, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that a Labrador-government census numbered the herd at 8,938, a 37 percent drop from two years before. Obviously, as the numbers declined and the animals bunched up, counting became easier. One report quoted a politician as blaming the decline on “technology and high-powered rifles.” Some native elders were quoted as denying it was happening at all, and claiming the “false reports” were a plot to deprive them of treaty rights. Trying to sift through all the conflicting information on the status of the George River herd from 1999 until today just leaves me confused.
Outfitters and trophy hunters are long gone, so we don’t figure in the equation anywhere. Those of us who experienced hunting the caribou in the 1980s — flying across Quebec in Otters, seeing the intersecting trails below, the endless lakes and rivers. Well, we can only count our blessings, like those who had the privilege of seeing the great bison herds spread out across the plains, one last time.–Terry Wieland