Letter to the Editor

Environment decision threatens herd I have recently returned from Washington, DC, where Melissa Mathession-Frost and I were participating in the…

Environment decision threatens herd

I have recently returned from Washington, DC, where Melissa Mathession-Frost and I were participating in the grassroots lobby effort to permanently protect the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the core calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd from possible future oil development.

The importance of protecting the calving grounds from oil development has been well documented over the last 20 years.

The importance of the area for the caribou, many other species of wildlife and migratory birds, the Gwich’in, Yukoners and humankind in general cannot be overstated.

There’s been a change in the political climate and in the US Congress following the November 2006 elections.

Today, the Democrats hold more seats than the Republicans in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

An important new development in the House of Representatives is the new bill HR – 39, Arctic Wilderness Act, introduced last week by Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and Jim Ramstad, a Republican from Minnesota.

As of last week, the Bill had 143 co-sponsors from other representatives in congress, but it has not yet been brought to a vote.

That decision will be made based on the political strategy required to ensure passage.

In the United States Senate, independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut will introduce the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Bill later this fall.

The intent of this bill is to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.

I am not against oil and gas development per se, but there are places on Earth where it has no place and the calving grounds is one of those places.

I ask myself, “Is there any refuge from Big Oil?”

The answer is no.

Not the land and not the ocean.

Year after year, we see record profits from oil companies.

Exxon alone made around $40 billion dollars in net profit after taxes last year. Yet companies like British Petroleum, Conneco Philips, Shell and Exxon continue to try to drill in the Porcupine caribou herd’s calving grounds in Alaska.

To me, this is a prime example of greed and the insatiable appetite the Bush administration has for oil.

This is what we are up against.

On the Canadian side of the border we have permanently protected most of the caribou critical habitat through federal and territorial parks and First Nations land claims.

For the past 15 years the caribou effort has been largely a defensive one, successfully stopping pro-drilling legislation from passing in the United States Congress.

We have dodged a series of bullets, so to speak, during the Bush administration tenure, which officially ends on January 20th, 2009.

Even when the Bush administration enjoyed a Republican president, a Republican controlled House of Representatives and Senate, they were unable to permit oil exploration drilling in the calving grounds, thanks to the work of many dedicated volunteers.

I attribute this success to the work of the grassroots initiative, the lobbying by the Gwitch’in, the Alaska Wilderness League and the many, many Yukoners who have worked tirelessly to influence politicians in Canada and the States to ensure our voice was heard and that politicians voted to continue to protect the calving grounds in the refuge.

In 1994, we had a very near miss when President Clinton vetoed the Budget Bill and one of the three reasons he gave was the inclusion of ANWR pro-drilling language.

In my opinion our best chances to permanently protect the calving grounds are to:

• Have a Democratic US President. This is our best chance to avoid a veto of protection legislation.

• Maintain a healthy majority in the United States House of Representatives and the Senate.

• Increase our lobby effort and keep our northern communities engaged so we don’t become complacent.

• Be assertive in getting ANWR permanent protection legislation through the United States congress.

At present, we are finally going on the offensive in trying to advance permanent protection legislation through the United States Congress.

This is no easy task.

It’s very different to ask legislators to stop drilling in the ANWR from asking them to permanently protect a very small but critical piece of their public lands.

I must respond to the Yukon Party government’s news release dated September 26th, regarding its changes to the Dempster Highway hunting regulations and not enforcing the 500-metre corridor and not letting the leaders pass.

Make no mistake; this herd is our life.

The future of the Porcupine caribou herd and the Vuntut Gwitchin are the same.

I view the non-enforcement of these regulations as threatening many of my constituents’ way of life and the safety of hunters along the Dempster.

I just spent a week meeting with Senators and members of the House of Representatives to try and ensure the survival of the herd.

Meanwhile, the premier is busy at home increasing hunting pressure on this precious resource.

This clearly demonstrates who has the best interest of the herd as their top priority.

Furthermore on September 21, five days before Yukon Environment Minister Dennis Fentie’s news release to stop enforcing key regulations on the Dempster, Fentie and members of his cabinet were in Old Crow meeting with the leadership of the VGFN and the public.

At no time during the public meetings were my constituents made aware of this serious Yukon Party government policy shift.

The Yukon Party government did not consult us!

It is Fentie who has the responsibility for answering to public criticism.

I encourage Yukoners to contact Fentie’s office and voice your dismay.

This is a complex issue, I do not deny that, however exercising the inherent right to harvest caribou is not the real issue, despite Fentie’s assertions to the contrary.

The Dempster issue is one of public safety and conservation and should have been argued as such.

The vast majority of my constituents support the 500-metre corridor and the regulations to let the leaders pass on the Dempster during the annual migration.

The Vuntut Gwitchin government has implemented a 500-metre corridor on the road connecting the community and the mountains behind Old Crow, thus demonstrating that the perceived entitlement to convenience hunting is nonexistent.

These Dempster regulations took years of discussion and more years to implement and were derived from recommendations from the Porcupine Caribou Management Board with direct input from the user community elders.

For the Yukon Party government to unilaterally decide to do away with the regulations is not in the best interest of the herd or the public trust for several reasons.

First, the fate of the calving grounds within ANWR is still unknown. 

There’s an unknown First Nation harvest.

There’s an unknown wounding loss as a result of harvesting attempts.

And we don’t know the full effects climate change is having on the health of the herd.

The Porcupine, Cape Bathurst and the Bluenose West caribou herds are declining.

The Vuntut Gwitchin government has imposed a partial hunting ban on its lands along the Dempster Highway and a 500-metre no-hunting corridor of their own.

The bottom line is we have no reason to believe that the Porcupine caribou herd’s population has increased since the last count in 2001, and for the Yukon Party government to increase harvesting pressure on the herd at this time is further threatening the herd’s health.

I ask myself: What if the herd is already close to the point of no return and this increased hunting pressure initiated by Fentie is just enough to push the herd over the edge?

I understand that there has been a successful count of the herd and the numbers are scheduled to be made publicly available in mid-to-late October.

To me the inherent aboriginal right to hunt also includes our responsibility to conserve for future generations, to protect the caribou and our traditional uses and values. 

If I have to speak out to protect the safety of hunters, and the caribou from hunting indiscriminate and overharvesting on the Dempster by user groups, then so be it, I will do so in a positive and honourable way.

Remember, the top priority is ensuring the herd remains healthy and in the short term what we need to do in my opinion is reinstate the regulations and convene the northern leaders immediately to discuss the problem and find a way to agree on controlling what we can control and that’s people.

At the end of the day we must come up with a voice that brings unity to solve this problem, because if there are not enough caribou to hunt there won’t be a subsistence harvesting right to hunt caribou and we will be left implementing a Porcupine caribou herd recovery program.

Darius Elias, Liberal MLA, Vuntut Gwitchin riding