say goodbye to the caribou

There is every indication that we are presiding over the next great extirpation. Across the North, caribou herds are vanishing. Fast. So, what are we going to do about it?

There is every indication that we are presiding over the next great extirpation.

Across the North, caribou herds are vanishing. Fast.

So, what are we going to do about it?

Apparently, nothing much.

This is not uncommon. More about that in a while.

For now, you should know the Porcupine herd, which, in 2001, numbered more than 130,000 animals is believed to be down to 100,000. But that is a very rough guess - it has not been counted in nine years.

Other herds have seen staggering drops in the same period.

Today, the Bathurst herd has 32,000 animals. When it was counted in 2003, it had 186,000 animals.

That’s quite a drop. But it pales in comparison to the Beverly herd.

In the late 1980s, the herd numbered more than 276,000. Today, it is all but gone.

Outfitter Alex Hall, a former biologist, has travelled extensively between Great Slave Lake and the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary for the last 40 years, through the range of the Beverly herd.

Until 2005, he’d never seen fewer than 20,000 caribou in a summer, according to a recent post in the Slave River Journal.

In 2005, he saw 300 caribou. In 2006, he saw 20. In 2007, 25.

In the last two years he’s seen eight caribou.

Worse, he’s seen no sign of the once ubiquitous herd. No tracks in the sandy soil.

“It’s pretty empty land out there now, compared to what it was 20 years ago,” Hall told the Journal.

Management boards comprised of aboriginal and government representatives are supposed to keep tabs on the herds, and take measures to protect them.

But they have a spotty record.

The Beverly herd had a management board that was overseeing its fate.

Fat lot of good it did. The group is meeting next week to work “co-operatively and proactively to share ideas on ways to help the declining” herd, according to a recent letter from Ross Thompson, secretary treasurer of the Beverly and Qamanirjuraq Caribou Management Board.

Probably a little too late for that, though.

A part of the problem is treaty rights.

Aboriginal groups don’t want to relinquish their negotiated right to hunt the animals, even in the face of their elimination.

The issue is huge right now, and the Dene Nation is taking the NWT to court to block its conservation measures. The aboriginal group wants to protect its right to hunt the Bathurst herd.

Here, the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Inuvialuit Game Council, both based in the NWT, are taking the Yukon government to court to protect their right to hunt the Porcupine herd. The Yukon government has imposed hunting restrictions, especially on cows, to preserve the herd.

The Gwich’in Tribal Council asserts it took only 500 animals from the Porcupine herd in the last five years. And only nine of those were cows.

Those numbers are a fabrication. Nobody believes they have any basis in reality.

In fact, one hunter travelling the Dempster Highway last fall counted five trucks with NWT plates loaded with 20 Porcupine cows. The seven hunters were all aboriginal.

Legally, they were doing what’s allowed.

Morally?

Fact is, the position of some of the aboriginal groups is idiotic. Unless, of course, their long-term goal is to import hamburgers from Alberta.

But the collapse of the caribou herds is not solely because of hunting pressures.

When you lose tens of thousands of caribou over a couple of years, something else is happening.

And here things get messy.

The NWT government approved diamond mines in the calving grounds of the Beverly herd.

Some allege the restrictions placed on the industrial activity were pretty light.

Given that, the anger of the aboriginal groups to restrictions on their hunting rights is a little more forgivable. A little more.

And climate change may also be contributing to the collapse, though this is still a hunch. Science is still a long way from pinning down a cause.

The only thing we know is that the caribou herds are dying off. Fast.

And, though governments are trying to curb hunting pressure, to buy time if nothing else, meat-hungry aboriginal groups are fighting to keep hunting, which is their right.

And, in at least one case, industry is mining diamonds where the caribou breed.

It’s a mess. A mess of our own creation.

And here we get to the common thread of history.

We are, once again, presiding over a mass extirpation.

In 1846, law school graduate Francis Parkman travelled west to study native American culture.

He spent the summer roaming the Great Plains, and he documented buffalo hunts.

“A practiced and skillful hunter, well mounted, will sometimes kill five or six cows in a single day,” he wrote.

It was the introduction of horses, trains and a widespread drought on the plains that eventually wiped out the plains bison.

Today, it is ATVs and snowmobiles, high-powered scopes, GPS units, huge pickups, diamond mines and global warming.

Similar scene? You bet.

Similar result?

Only a buffoon would argue otherwise. (Richard Mostyn)