The Cree Regional Authority (CRA) and the Cree Trappers Association (CTA) have launched an initiative to raise awareness of the fast-diminishing woodland caribou herd.

According to an independent study commissioned by the CRA, the woodland caribou population is falling sharply, especially among the eastern Temiscamie herd, whose territory has seen a glut of road building and forestry activity over the past few years.

“What we saw a lot of was where there were roads and forestry activity, the caribou were absent,” said Nadia Saganash, Wildlife Management Administrator at the CRA. “Because of this, they were being isolated in certain patches of forest cover left in the territory.”

This conclusion motivated the Cree to protest new construction that would damage the critical remaining remnants of the caribou habitat. After efforts by a joint Cree-Quebec task force to establish conservation protocols stalled, the CRA launched an awareness campaign within Eeyou Istchee.

“What we’re trying to do is build an awareness campaign to let people know what’s happening to the caribou,” said Jean-Baptiste Loon, Special Projects Coordinator for the CTA. “Non-Natives are not allowed to hunt the caribou [due to provincial and federal protection], but the Crees have rights to kill woodland caribou. While they don’t kill many, we’re still asking them to limit the amount of kills.”

Saganash was quick to note the rarely necessary step of specifically requesting a moratorium on kills.

“It is an important cultural element for families, but we’ve found that once people know the caribou population is falling, they willingly change their mindsets to conservation,” she said. “We haven’t had to say ‘stop hunting’. We’ve just raised awareness about the population issue and it’s taken care of itself.”

The CRA and CTA’s outreach to the Cree has included a bit of crowd-sourcing. They requested that while Cree are out on the land, they should note the location of any woodland caribou, so that tracking the herd and its habits is easier. Especially important, they say, is to notify the presence or the absence of calves.

“There’s been very few sightings of calves right now, which means reproduction is very low,” said Loon. “The extensive road development has had an extremely negative effect on the reproduction and survival of the herd.”

The report, “Status of Woodland Caribou in the James Bay Region of Northern Quebec”, was published last September. The joint study – the four authors hail from the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), à Rimouski (UQAR) and en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) – mentioned the woodland caribou’s aversion to roads, and the resulting effect on caribou access to safe calving grounds.

“Female caribou in proximity to highly roaded areas may be constrained in their search for predator-free space during the critical calving period,” the report states. “Not only do roads contribute enormously to landscape fragmentation and habitat loss … they also facilitate improved access … for both animal and human predators.”

While the awareness campaign is proceeding well, Saganash stressed the need to expand efforts into true conservation, with the eventual goal being the establishment of protected zones within Eeyou Istchee. This, however, seems far off after what she described as a battle with the Quebec government.

“At this point, we’re not too positive in terms of what can be done in terms of conservation,” she said. “What should be done, and I think all biologists would say this, is to disregard the economical aspects of this and establish a protected zone, stop harvesting and go into restoration mode. But we aren’t doing that now.”

Until then, efforts are being made to teach hunters the difference between woodland caribou and the other two types of caribou – migratory and barren ground. However establishing meaningful conservation efforts, Saganash said, appear to be dangerously far off for the dwindling herds.