Conservation-based planning will protect the caribou for generations to come

Recently, the government of Nunavut adjusted the January 1, 2015 moratorium on caribou hunting on Baffin Island to allow for a hunt of 250 male caribou. WWF does not support this adjustment and is urging the government to consider a precautionary approach to caribou management on Baffin Island until numbers recover enough to allow for a sustainable harvest.

Barren-ground caribou, Wapusk National Park, Canada
A herd of Barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus) move through a snowy winter landscape on a windy day in Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada. © Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada

The temporary ban on hunting the barren-ground caribou was brought about after the population declined by 90 per cent over the past 20 years. While much of this decline was likely due to natural cyclical rhythms, the government of Nunavut felt it was important to protect the species at the base of its population cycle. And we agreed.
Now that the moratorium has been adjusted, we are concerned that the decision was made without proper evidence, without following best practice for conservation, and without regard for external conditions. We have expressed our concern surrounding this decision to the government of Nunavut and will be watching carefully for opportunities to conserve the herd later this year.
Currently, the population status of the Baffin Island caribou remains unclear. As the moratorium has only been in place for eight months, we don’t know whether populations have increased, stabilized, or even decreased further. Later this fall, after aerial surveys are conducted and more Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit is collected, we will better understand the reproductive status of the herd. Only at that point, with new population evidence, should the government of Nunavut make a decision on whether the moratorium should be adjusted.
Baffin Island landscape, Nunavut, Canada
Aerial view of Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. © Peter Ewins / WWF-Canada

In addition to making decisions without the appropriate information, the government has set a target that, based on the information we do have, is too high. Considering the declining population of the Baffin Island barren-ground caribou herd to around 5,000 individuals, an appropriate conservation-based approach would be to maintain the recent moratorium on harvest, or at most to allow a smaller harvest of 1-2% of the population.
Instead, the government of Nunavut have made adjustments to the moratorium that represents a harvest of 5% of the population.
Finally, population decline of the herd has not been consistent across the entire Baffin Island region, and as such, the entire region should not be treated the same. While the central and southern portions of Baffin Island have seen significant herd population declines, they have not been as pronounced as the reduction of the northern regions. It appears that the severe decline in the northern regions will not be acknowledged and that tags will also be allotted to the northern communities of Baffin Island, which could have negative and irreversible effects on the caribou of this region.
Coastal landscape of Victor Bay, north Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
Mountains with scattered sea ice below on the coast of Victor Bay, north Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada. © Lee NARRAWAY / WWF-Canada

We recognize the socio-economic and cultural benefits of allowing communities from all regions of Baffin Island to harvest caribou. However, the very low population size and increased industrial development in north Baffin Island indicate that a continued moratorium on hunting may be necessary to ensure the long term persistence of the herd in north Baffin Island for generations to come.
Now that the decision has been made, we, like many others, hope that this fall’s government studies will demonstrate that the herd is increasing in abundance. However, should the upcoming surveys indicate that herd populations are not increasing, WWF will work with local partners to promote reinstating the moratorium until population numbers recover and allow for a sustainable harvest.