The province launched a caribou strategy, one of its largest animal population studies ever, in 2008, to search for a cause for the island’s declining caribou numbers. They stopped keeping track in 1997 according to records, but when the counts continued six years later they found that most caribou calves were not surviving their first year.
Howley outfitter Ray Broughton believes they need to look no further than predators like the coyote, which he says has bred with the Eastern timberwolf creating a larger, more powerful animal he calls a “hybrid coyote.”
Coyotes are natural predators to the mostly docile caribou, as are bears, lynxes and eagles. Broughton, who runs his own outfitting business in Howley, said a decrease in any species will always have several factors; the population may grow to the point where it cannot be sustained by its habitat or predation by other species. But the coyote, he believes, is to blame.
“We’ve taken them in excess of 60 pounds,” Broughton said. “It’s a likelihood that there are 80-85 pounders out there.
“A coyote can take down a caribou, but another big problem for those caribou is there’s no calf recruitment.”
Broughton said a big difference between a caribou and a moose is that a mother moose is fiercely protective over its calf, and that calf is mobile very quickly after it is born, giving it a chance against predators.
A caribou takes longer to become mobile and its mother’s maternal instincts are not as strong.
“There have been documented cases where a (caribou) calf is being eaten while it’s being born,” said Broughton.
“For a herd to be healthy there has to be healthy there has to be calves coming in and raised by their mothers.”
Outfitter Leander Brophy of Daniel’s Harbour operates an outfitter business in areas around Burgeo on the south coast. He said overpopulation is the culprit.
“They get too plentiful and they eat themselves out of house and home,” he said. “And now that the population is going down, the coyotes and bears are killing all the calves and they aren’t coming back.”
Brophy said last year they actually did see more caribou in his zone, mainly area 63, than there have been in previous years. But he added, it will be a long time before the caribou comes back fully.
“To get them back to the levels we saw in the ’80s it could take 20 years, maybe longer depending on how thick the predators get,” he said. “There were no coyotes back in the ’90s that I know of and the bears, you could go a week without seeing one and now I’ve seen nine bears in one day, so it’ll be a struggle for (caribou) to come back.”
He said there’s not much anyone can do, short of “shutting it down altogether.”
The caribou strategy has taken almost five years and has cost the province about $15 million. It was discovered in 2003 that the calf mortality rate was nearly 10 per cent, which has climbed to a rate of about 30 per cent today.