A herd of northern caribou once numbering almost half a million is now down to fewer than 10,000 animals, new figures show.

On Tuesday, the territorial government stated there are now approximately 8,200 caribou in the Bathurst herd, whose grounds span much of the eastern Northwest Territories and Kitikmeot.

At its peak, in 1986, the herd had some 470,000 animals.

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The figure is a fresh decline from 2015, when the Bathurst herd had around 20,000 members. Now, only 3,600 are believed to be breeding cows.

The Bluenose-East herd, a more northerly herd also in precipitous decline, now numbers 19,300 caribou – down from 39,000 just three years ago.

Other, much smaller herds surveyed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources had remained somewhat stable or increased slightly in number.

Why the decline?

The continual decline of the Bathurst and Bluenose-East herds suggests to some the factors behind the animals’ plight are either ill-understood or not being addressed by the territory’s many attempts to stabilize their number.

However, the department believes the decline – though steep – is at heart a natural ebb and flow at work.

“I don’t think it’s only from human harvest. These are natural population cycles,” Joe Dragon – the department’s deputy minister, who has a background in caribou research – claimed at a briefing on Tuesday.

“The one worry is we don’t know how far these populations are going to come back, and whether these populations are going to be viable in future without help.”

Dragon said the speed of the decline was the main issue, adding a more than 50 percent drop in three years for the Bathurst herd was “not so normal … and alarming.”

‘No easy answers’

“The news is not good,” said Robert C McLeod, the NWT’s environment minister. “The Bathurst and Bluenose-East herds continue to decline dramatically.”

McLeod urged his government and Indigenous partners to work together, though it was unclear what more could be done to turn around a decline now many years long, and which has proved resistant to all existing rescue mechanisms.

As an example, for almost a decade, virtually no harvesting of Bathurst caribou has been permissible in the NWT and Nunavut. The territory simultaneously provided incentives to encourage the harvesting of predators like wolves, and stepped up its surveillance through devices like monitoring collars.

“Caribou numbers can bounce back,” insisted McLeod, citing the knowledge of Inuvialuit and Gwich’in Elders. Separately, Tłı̨chǫ Elders have identified earlier periods – such as the 1920s and 1960s – when they felt caribou numbers were similarly low.

He added staff would immediately begin developing joint proposals with affected Indigenous governments. The Sahtu Secretariat had, he said, already expressed surprise at the low numbers.

“There are no easy answers and many complex answers, some of which we have no control over,” he continued.

Asked at what point the territory may have to admit the crisis is beyond human control, McLeod told Cabin Radio: “I don’t know if there’s a set number where we say this is deadly serious … but I think we all recognize it’s time to start implementing more action plans and mitigate the impact on the caribou.”

Safety net

The federal government’s Species at Risk Act allows the federal environment minister to put in place a so-called “safety-net order,” transferring protection to Ottawa if the minister feels territorial legislation and action is not doing enough.

In the 16 years since the act became law, no such safety-net order has been put in place in any Canadian jurisdiction.

“That is always a possibility,” admitted McLeod, “if they believe we are not coming up with a made-in-the-NWT approach.

“But I think we have demonstrated we have capacity to deal with a lot of these issues.”

What next?

Five herds, in total, were surveyed over the summer and fall of this year. Flights over caribou calving grounds and aerial photography are used in conjunction with a related survey of breeding females.

The briefing hosted by territorial officials on Tuesday focused on analyzing the resulting figures and demonstrating the steps governments have already taken.

The territorial government said it would now talk to Indigenous partners and the various regulatory boards about “potential management actions” over and above the lengthy list already in place.

While there was little immediate evidence of fresh approaches for officials to take, a draft plan is anticipated in the first half of 2019.

“We’ve tried things,” said Dragon. “We’ve tried looking at harvests. We’ve tried looking at habitat.

“Unfortunately, it’s a natural process.

“It’s a bunch of different factors but, as we help the caribou through this transitional period of low numbers … there are going to be very serious questions on what we have to do, collectively.”