by Darius Elias
Vadzaih yeendoo gweeheendaii geenjit -“Caribou in the future, they are going to live”
When I was very young, living out on the Old Crow Flats in the spring, my late grandmother Mary Kassi would speak to the Raven in Gwich’in, asking when the caribou would arrive.
Days would pass until one morning, after asking the Raven again, she would tell us “Get ready! The caribou are coming, they’re close!” We would sharpen our knives, get our packsacks and guns ready and cleaned, and then sure enough – the caribou would walk out onto the frozen lake and the harvest would begin.
The Porcupine caribou herd is central to the way of life of the Gwich’in people. We depend on them, and have maintained a relationship with them for thousands of years. In the words of many Gwich’in elders, “Caribou are our life. Without caribou we wouldn’t exist.”
Every spring, the Porcupine caribou migrate north to their calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeast Alaska. While most of this area is protected as wilderness, the 6,100-square-kilometre coastal plain remains open to development.
The Gwich’in call the calving grounds Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.” The herd’s population is currently estimated at 197,000 animals, but its survival is not guaranteed as long as the calving grounds remain vulnerable.
Though we are trying, we may not be able to control what happens in ANWR. But one thing we can control is ourselves, which brings me to another serious concern.
For the first time in five years, the Porcupine herd is wintering near the Dempster Highway. So far this year, dozens of caribou have been shot and abandoned in my north Yukon riding. This type of food wastage damages our moral authority to seek permanent protection of the ANWR calving grounds.
Over the last few decades, all levels of government, along with boards and committees, have contributed time, energy and resources to develop management plans, studies and education initiatives to protect this invaluable natural resource. So when I see this type of gross disregard and disrespect for the Porcupine herd, I naturally get upset.
People must be willing to learn safe and respectful harvesting practices. We must do everything we can to ensure our caribou are not being wasted, and that their critical habitat is protected.
The Porcupine Caribou Management Board worked with the parties responsible for the herd’s management to create the Harvest Management Plan for the Porcupine herd in Canada. In 2010 I witnessed eight separate governments sign this plan, which coordinates management actions for the herd’s conservation and lays out how the parties will respond according to the status of the herd.
The plan was developed under the terms of the 1985 Porcupine Caribou Management Agreement. I believe it’s time that the parties to this agreement open it for renegotiation, with the objective of amending the agreement to reflect today’s governance and socio-economic realities.
For example, the management agreement doesn’t recognize the rights and responsibilities of our territory’s self-governing First Nation governments and their legal jurisdiction over their lands and resources.
Under the agreement, the Porcupine Caribou Management Board developed guidelines for the sale, trade and barter of caribou meat. I strongly believe we must eliminate the sale authority altogether, because some people look at the Porcupine herd with dollar signs in their eyes. That is plain wrong, and it hurts everyone when it is abused. The commodification of the herd has to end.
I do want to thank all Yukoners who are harvesting caribou respectfully and safely, and who have worked tirelessly to ensure the Porcupine herd is a valued and respected part of our rich northern landscape. We must continue to work together to learn and pass on best hunting practices.
My colleague, Environment Minister Wade Istchenko, has assured me that his department has increased conservation officer presence along the Dempster Highway to help ensure ethical and legal harvesting practices are maintained.
I have written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking him to reaffirm his government’s commitment to seek permanent protection for Porcupine caribou calving grounds in Alaska.
I have also written to U.S. President Obama, urging him to continue his campaign to persuade Congress to designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a wilderness area.
The inherent aboriginal right to hunt includes a responsibility to be valiant stewards of our shared resources, to protect the caribou, and to uphold our traditions and values.
I encourage anyone who plans to harvest caribou to be informed before they hunt. Ask an elder, experienced hunter or conservation officer for guidance, and look for more information at www.pcmb.ca.
We must continue to work together to learn and pass on best-hunting practices. The world is watching.
Darius Elias is the MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin.