Inuit Knowledge of Long-term Changes in a Population of Arctic Tundra Caribou


  • Michael A.D. Ferguson
  • Robert G. Williamson
  • François Messier



Inuit, traditional ecological knowledge, caribou, Rangifer tarandus, population dynamics, metapopulations, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada


Indigenous peoples possess knowledge about wildlife that dates back many generations. Inuit observations of historical changes in a caribou population on southern Baffin Island, collected from 43 elders and active hunters during 1983-95, indicate that caribou were abundant and their distributions extensive in most coastal areas of southern Baffin Island from c.1900-25. Subsequently, caribou distributions contracted and abundance declined, probably reaching an overall low in the 1940s. Beginning in the mid-1950s, distributions and abundance increased gradually, at least until the mid-1980s. Changes in distribution occurred mainly during autumn, as caribou migrated to their wintering areas. Within most wintering areas, increases in caribou abundance followed a process of range expansion, range drift (i.e., expanding on one front while contracting on another), and finally range shift (i.e., mass emigration to a new winter range). During the population decline and low, the caribou often exhibited winter range volatility (i.e., frequent, unpredictable interannual range shifts). On the basis of Inuit descriptions of caribou abundance, we estimated that the population as a whole decreased an average of 9% annually from 1910 to 1940, and then increased about 8% annually from 1940 to 1980. This pattern was largely consistent across southern Baffin Island. As Inuit elders had predicted in 1985, the population essentially abandoned its highest-density wintering area on Foxe Peninsula during the late 1980s, apparently emigrating en masse to a new wintering area on Meta Incognita Peninsula, about 375 km to the southeast. Inuit knowledge suggested that caribou population fluctuations are cyclic, with each full cycle occurring over the lifetime of an elder. Both this study and historical records dating from 1860 support a periodicity of 60-80 years for fluctuations of the South Baffin caribou population. Inuit elders suggested that the abundance of caribou on wintering areas decreases several years after caribou occupy small coastal islands, a phenomenon currently occurring throughout southern Baffin Island, except on Cumberland Peninsula. The Inuit recognize two ecotypes of caribou: migratory upland-lowland caribou and resident mountain-plateau caribou. After migratory caribou from Foxe Peninsula shifted their winter range around 1990, Meta Incognita Peninsula was occupied by both ecotypes. The migratory caribou apparently occupy low elevations, while the resident caribou remain in the mountains, producing two seasonal migratory patterns. Inuit knowledge proved to be temporally and spatially more complete than the written record.