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Caribou Numbers Plummet In Newfoundland

Caribou Numbers Plummet In Newfoundland

For years, woodland caribou hunting in Newfoundland has been an exciting adventure popular with bowhunters. However, that adventure may well be on hold for a while. Newfoundland's woodland caribou seem to be disappearing. In 1996, an estimated 90,000 woodland caribou roamed across Newfoundland. By 2001, the province issued 7,730 permits to resident and nonresident hunters.

Photo courtesy of Craig Boddington

Today the herd has plummeted to 37,000 animals, and for 2008, the province issued only 1,235 permits, 400 going to nonresidents. In 2008, some areas of the province were closed to caribou hunting, and officials are talking of closing the 2009 caribou season completely.

Several theories might explain the dramatic decline in caribou numbers. One is that timbering and other development have fragmented the habitat to the detriment of caribou. However, no data support that theory. Another possibility is that caribou may have natural cycles, and if that's the case, it would be possible that such a cycle is now in the down trend. Numbers were very low in the 1960s and bounced back, so maybe the animals experience a 50-year cycle. Again, no data exist to support this theory.

When researchers compared the body condition of cows and bulls from areas of major declines to areas of stable populations, they found no difference. Adult caribou health is not the problem.

However, researchers have solid data showing that calf survival for some of the herds is only 10 percent. Calf survival must be at least 15 percent to maintain a stable population of caribou, and it must be higher than that for the population to grow. Apparently, predation on calves is playing a major role in the decline of woodland caribou.

Biologists estimate that black bears are killing 30-50 percent of the lost calves and that coyotes take about the same, if not more. In some areas, lynx also prey heavily on caribou calves. Coyotes first appeared in Newfoundland around 1988, and their numbers are still on the rise. Obviously, aggressive coyote control would be a step in the right direction to improve caribou calf survival, but when such a program might begin remains in question.

In developing a caribou recovery program, the wildlife folks in Newfoundland have budgeted $15 million and set a five-year strategy for implementation. On-going studies include censuses, along with studies of mortality, predator ecology, habitat, and law enforcement.

In the early 1990s, more than 40,000 "Newfies" lost their jobs when the cod fishing industry collapsed. Some found work with guides and outfitters hunting caribou, moose, and black bears. Now, the loss of the caribou resource will again have a major negative impact on rural employment, and guides and outfitters will suffer. Yes, moose hunting is very good and black bear hunting remains worthwhile, but woodland caribou hunting is what draws many nonresidents, and only time will tell how the caribou de-cline will affect the Newfoundland economy. "Newfies" are hardworking, resilient people, and they will survive. However, it appears that things will get worse in the caribou hunting industry before they get better.

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