Fast shrinking N.L. caribou herds need protection: report
A Woodland caribou bull is seen in this undated handout photo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO- CPAWS - Mike Bedell)
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A new report says the number of woodland caribou in Newfoundland has fallen by 66 per cent in the last decade, and calls on the province to take action.
The report Wednesday from the conservation group Canadian Boreal Initiative says the province should temporarily halt tree-cutting and new logging roads in dense caribou habitat.
"Until an effective approach to managing large intact landscapes is developed, the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Natural Resources should adopt a temporary deferral on new commercial harvesting and road building within intact forest landscapes occupied by caribou."
The report says caribou need forest management that will allow herds to migrate seasonally without overexposure to predators.
Co-author Jeffrey Wells, a biologist and scientific adviser to the boreal initiative, said Newfoundland's woodland caribou weren't considered at risk in 2002, when the population was estimated at about 85,000 animals.
That number has since dropped to about 32,000. The report primarily blames habitat loss for making caribou calves vulnerable to a growing list of predators, including bears, lynx and coyotes.
"Absolutely," Wells said in an interview when asked if the Newfoundland herds should now be considered at risk.
"It's declined by over 60 per cent in the last decade so clearly there's a problem," he said of the woodland caribou population. "But at the same time, there are still large areas of intact habitat there.
"There's a great opportunity here for thinking proactively and figuring out how to maintain those caribou herds."
Newfoundland Environment Minister Terry French rejected the report's recommendations and said it's too early to declare woodland caribou at risk in the province.
"Yes, we do have issues and, yes, we are working on them," he said Wednesday in an interview. "But we still have 32,000 animals and we have a significant amount of land that's not developed, that's undisturbed, for their habitat."
French said the province is in the fourth year of a $15-million, five-year caribou study involving local and international scientists.
"Where there's no development whatsoever, we've been watching predators prey on our (caribou) calves."
The province has tried diversionary feeding for black bears and other animals that increasingly hunt young caribou, and has tagged some predators to track those populations, French said.
The province will plan more action when its own study -- including research that dates back to the early 1900s -- is complete, he added.
"We're very concerned about it," French said of the caribou decline. "It's a piece of our culture. It's a piece of who we are and we have no interest, of course, in wiping out the caribou herds of this province."
Wednesday's report from the boreal initiative finds that even within several defined caribou management areas around Newfoundland, "the proportion of area that is protected is less than three per cent, and most are below one per cent. This includes ... areas with significant caribou herds like those of La Poile, the Northern Peninsula and St. Anthony."
Wells said there's about seven million hectares of intact caribou territory that could be better protected. It includes a swath of the southern coastal region of Newfoundland up to the base of the Northern Peninsula, for example.
In other parts of Canada, woodland caribou populations total about 30,000 and are officially considered at risk, Wells said. Most herds are found in Ontario and Quebec.
Newfoundland has a rare chance to halt further damage to its caribou population, Wells said.
"It's a way to ensure you have the right path forward before you make mistakes. And we've seen other kinds of natural-resource use issues where we haven't done that.
"Cod may be one of the best examples where maybe if we had thought ahead and been more proactive in thinking about how to manage sustainably, we'd still have jobs for our kids and grandkids into the future, instead of struggling with the loss of that fishery."
Woodland caribou have played major cultural and economic roles in Newfoundland, says the report.
Caribou are still an important source of food for aboriginal hunters and are an integral part of the outfitting industry for sport hunters.