According to the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources, a 2017 study indicates the island’s herd declined from 353 caribou to 215 in just two years.
Initially, the province’s 2017-18 Hunting and Trapping Guide issued 50 licenses for the island. That figure was amended following the count, reducing the number of available licenses to 25.
While the count isn’t typically carried out on the island in two-year intervals, area feedback suggested a decline. Blair Adams, director of forestry and wildlife research for the department, said that couldn’t be ignored given the upcoming fall hunt.
“If we kept it at 50 when the numbers have dropped by almost 40 per cent, then the hunt would have had a big impact on the herd,” he said.
Asked why the population is in decline, Adams said it’s never a simple answer when it comes to wildlife populations, especially when caribou on the island are in good body condition.
Suggestions have been made that caribou are leaving the island. But Adams pointed out there are 15 collared animals on the island for tracking purposes, and none have left the island.
There’s predation from coyotes, with a few reported kills, but it’s a hard connection to make to the population dropping so rapidly. Poaching is always a concern, but enforcement doesn’t have any direct evidence of the illegal activity.
“It’s unclear why the population is in decline,” said Adams. “It could be as simple as small populations with small geographic spaces being prone to fluctuation, as all it takes is a bit of bad weather or a drop in food supply.”
Shea said the decline in caribou – often seen roaming and browsing in and around communities – hasn’t gone unnoticed by island residents.
“Everybody is concerned about the caribou population, and it’s easy to tell it’s down,” he said. “In the winter, they come up around the hospital and school – in the center of the island – to feed, and there were very few this year.”
Like Adams, Shea is unsure about what’s happening, but he believes the population may have eaten itself out of house and home.
Having monitored the herd for some time, he said migration patterns have changed over the years.
“They are moving in different directions during the wintertime for feeding,” he said, adding lack of food supply may be the reason residents on the ferry crossing have witnessed caribou heading for Indian Island.
The mayor believes reducing licenses is the best practice.
“I can speak for a lot of residents on the island that they will be quite pleased, because they think that 50 is too much to take out of 215 animals,” said Shea.
“Everybody on this island wants to keep that herd healthy, and if it means reductions or even a ban for a few years, that’s what should happen.”