The SCIF Conservation Department provides periodic reports on active conservation projects in order to better inform the SCI community about the benefits to wildlife that result from its conservation investments around the globe. One project the SCIF is supporting is the Newfoundland Caribou Strategy, an initiative to study the decline in caribou and implement strategies to assist the recovery of the 14 resident caribou populations.

Born and raised in Newfoundland, Shane Mahoney is a biologist and writer, and is internationally known as a lecturer on environmental and resource conservation issues. He is directing the Caribou Strategy and has submitted the report below.

“Woodland caribou are listed as a species at risk throughout their range in North America, and the rugged island of Newfoundland is home to the majority of those that remain. Caribou is the only indigenous ungulate on the island of Newfoundland and is the main attraction for visiting hunters and a vital source of revenue for outfitters. This is the most southerly place in the world where these spectacular animals roam, and hunting caribou in the wilderness of the island is a breathtaking experience. But finding caribou in recent years has become increasingly challenging.

Newfoundland caribou have declined from a peak of approximately 100,000 animals in the late 1990s to around 30,000 today. The decline continues, and if unchecked, could lead to the listing as a ‘Species at Risk’ through the federal assessment process in Canada. Low calf recruitment over the past several years appears to be the primary explanation for reduced numbers and a declining population. Predation by black bear, coyote and lynx is known to be a major factor affecting calf survivorship. What remains unknown is whether other influences such as habitat change or weather patterns are playing a role in the decline. Caribou calves may be more susceptible to predators due to factors relating to habitat health or food availability, or perhaps there are simply more predators on the land in recent years.

In 2008, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced the Caribou Strategy, a new initiative to study the caribou decline and implement strategies to assist the recovery of the 14 resident caribou populations. The Strategy will incorporate studies of caribou and predator ecology, habitat, and ecosystem interactions to uncover and define the factors responsible for the recent decrease in numbers. Hunter education is an important component of the Strategy, and help from hunters and outfitters will be solicited throughout the Strategy. Once movement patterns and density of predators are known, these findings will guide an experimental predator reduction program to determine if predator reduction can lower caribou calf mortality and mitigate population decline.

The Safari Club International Foundation (SCIF), as part of its commitment to science–based conservation, has provided $250,000 over a three-year period to aid in the study of Newfoundland’s caribou and their predators. To date, SCIF funds have purchased 100 radio collars for caribou calves, 21 Global Positioning System (GPS) collars for lynx, two net guns for coyote capture, and 12 motion-sensitive cameras and battery packs. Caribou calves will be collared as newborns in three study areas in late May and early June.

The calves will be monitored regularly, and when mortalities occur the scene will be assessed to determine cause of death, and if predated, the predator responsible. The lynx GPS collars will be deployed in three study areas of the island and will provide important information on lynx movements, habitat use, and overlap with caribou ranges and calving areas. To date, 26 coyotes have been captured with net guns purchased by SCIF, and all animals have been equipped with GPS collars. The 12 motion-sensitive and infrared cameras will be set up at strategic locations such as bear baits, lynx and coyote scent posts, and calving grounds to get information on predator densities and behaviour. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is grateful to SCIF for their generous involvement and are looking forward to reporting results in the near future.