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View of the tundra caribou from Mushuau-nipi — Part 1

Towards a shared assessment of the state of the tundra caribou population

By Jérôme Spaggiari, Conservation Coordinator, SNAP-Québec

I’ve just returned from a unique experience in Mushuau-nipi, on the George River in Québec, at the boundary between the spruce forests and the tundra. This site has been known and used for thousands of years by the Innu, who have long been coming here to hunt and fish.

For about ten years now, Serge Ashini Goupil and the Friends of Mushuau-nipi have been organizing Nordic Aboriginal Seminars in this beautiful and inspiring location to explore themes related to the use of aboriginal and Nordic Québec territories. This year, the topic of the eighth annual gathering was “Caribou in a precarious position – combining conservation and aboriginal knowledge”. And, as if by magic, although the Tundra King had given Mushuau-nipi the cold shoulder for several years, hundreds of caribou came to greet us during this week.

The CPAWS Québec chapter (SNAP Québec) was invited to share its work experience within the Équipe de rétablissement du caribou forestier du Québec (Québec woodland caribou restoration team) and more broadly, its expertise in conservation of natural, and especially Nordic, ecosystems.

Feedback in plenary session by Thora Herrmann, who works with the Sami people on reindeer conservation, group discussions on the role of various components of civil society. Photo by Jérôme Spaggiari

During this seminar, there were neither endless PowerPoint presentations with an overly controlled message, nor overloaded agendas. It was a genuine place for real exchange, of the type that shows what we have in our hearts and souls. The thirty or so participants, mostly Innu, spoke successively about their relationship with the caribou. Personally, I considered the powerful testimony from Innu caribou hunters as a gift. I was privileged to understand, or rather to experience through their stories, to what point Innu culture is intimately linked to this species. One elder even asserted in his language, Innu-Aimun, that without caribou there would be no Innu! This was undoubtedly another reason to work together to protect this species and its habitat.

On the second day of the seminar, we talked about the results of the latest inventory of the George River caribou herd. Only slightly fewer than 28,000 animals were observed this summer, while there were approximately 74,000 in 2010 and around a million in the 1990s. Even though this was not really surprising – research has shown that the numbers of the tundra caribou vary in a cyclical manner, reaching significant highs and lows – the news resonated like a thunderclap.

Serge Couturier, an expert who has been studying the caribou for close to thirty years, explained that during population crashes, telemetric monitoring of animals equipped with radio collars shows that the species will gather in an area of approximately 75,000 km2 situated between Schefferville, Kangiqsuallujuaq and Nain (in Labrador). Interestingly, this area has long been known to the First Nations as the home of the caribou – a neat example of convergence between scientific and traditional knowledge.

The other main point of convergence, in my opinion, is the sharing of a common diagnosis with regard to the gravity of the situation and the need to act quickly and efficiently.

Click here for Part 2!

I’d like to add my personal thanks with those of SNAP-Québec to Mountain-Equipment Co-op, whose generous contributions to SNAP-Québec made my participation in this seminar possible.

This text has been translated from French by Birgit Schultz, a CPAWS Québec volunteer. To read the original version, click here.