Caribou: the boreal’s other great migration

By Peter McCartney

By Peter McCartney | October 3, 2016

Thundering hooves of the George River Caribou Herd can be felt along both sides of the Quebec-Labrador border as the animals follow what local Innu-Naskapi people call the “river without trees” north.

This group of iconic migratory woodland caribou spend their winter in the relative safety of the boreal region. Its dense network of forest, barrens and wetlands offers the perfect shelter .

When spring returns to the George River valley and the land begins to thaw, the caribou move north to their calving grounds in Northern Labrador, grazing as new food is unveiled.

It’s an annual journey that has been repeated for thousands of years, but now the George River Caribou Herd is in peril. In 1993, the herd numbered close to 800,000. In 2014, the summer’s count found just 14,200 animals.

Wild population swings are typical of caribou. This time, however, could be different. Climate changes and development pressures present new risks to such a small herd and nobody knows how this will affect its recovery. Habitat, including boreal wetlands, will be crucial for the herd to rebound.

Just like waterfowl, caribou play a central role in the diet and culture of local Cree, Naskapi, Inuit and Innu peoples.  Their very survival depends on the health and abundance of species such as caribou and waterfowl.  In 2013, they formed the Ungava Peninsula Caribou Aboriginal Round Table (UPCART), which has shown genuine leadership in attempting to find long-term solutions to this herd in peril.

Photo ©Valerie Courtois

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