As hard as this may be for many big-game hunters to believe, it’s true: Quebec will close its caribou season in February of 2018, making this fall, 2017, potentially the last chance to hunt Quebec/Labrador caribou in your lifetime.
The reason is caribou populations in northern Quebec are crashing. The George River herd dropped from an estimated 750,000 animals to 10,000, prompting hunting to be discontinued in 2011. The Leaf River herd in western Quebec has dropped from an estimated 600,000 to 200,000, with numbers predicted to further decline. Thus, the Government of Quebec will close caribou hunting at the end of the 2017 season.
Why the Decline?
Many theories have been offered to explain the decline, from the release of methane gas as the permafrost melts due to global warming, to a natural cycle of overgrazing. While at the 2017 Safari Club International (SCI) Convention, I spoke to Dominic Pugre, who represents the Quebec Outfitters Federation. I asked him about this crisis, and if it was as bad as it seems.
“About a month ago, the Government released the results of a survey that showed the Leaf River herd to have a population of about 200,000 caribou, and still in decline from 600,000 animals 15 years ago,” he said. “Due to the steady decline, they have closed sports hunting of caribou, February 2018.”
Of course, everyone is asking for an explanation for this drastic reduction in caribou numbers. “We don’t have a clear answer,” Pugre said. “Climate change and probably overgrazing, because at one time we had 1.3 million animals. Since they feed mainly on lichen, and lichen takes 75 years to re-grow, that’s a big problem. We had an infestation of parasites about 10 years ago that affected the mature bulls; that’s another factor.”
Hunting is not to Blame
Pugre says that hunting isn’t a relevant factor. “For the last 2 years, we were allowed 1,300 caribou, less than 1 percent of the caribou, so it didn’t play a role in the decline. Researchers from the government and universities are still conducting research on the caribou to explain what drives the population decline, and what is the factor that explains why the ratio of calves to cows is so low. There are still a lot of questions.
“Our outfitters are asking about the lack of caribou carcasses. These guides and pilots are out there for months, flying more than any other source, yet they see no dead animals. The area is vast, but they are flying hundreds of hours during the season with clients and guides on the ground, so that when we learned that we lost 150,000 animals in 2 years, they ask questions about the surveys. They don’t deny the problem, and in fact were the first to alert the government 10 years ago, saying something is wrong. But, the government didn’t react rapidly enough, and we still don’t have a caribou management plan. The last caribou management plan expired in 2010. We have been asking for another management plan since then. If the population goes below a certain threshold, them the hunt can be closed. Nobody saw the closure coming. It was made through a conference call a few days before Christmas; no time for questions; that’s it.”
Devastating Impact on the North
Pugre says that 15-20 outfitting business will close at the end of 2017. “Outfitters don’t only provide hunts and fishing packages, but transportation, too. A person can only access the North through an outfitter. Now that the outfitters will be gone, northern Quebec will have no access, even for residents. It was a decision made more for political reasons than based on science.”
Whatever reason for the decline, or the politics of caribou hunting, if you want to hunt a Quebec/Labrador caribou, make reservations ASAP. Shows like the SCI Convention are an ideal way to book a hunt and speak to the outfitter personally.