Once in a while, you have to wonder what’s the difference between Big Oil and Big Native.
To survive, Big Oil exploits resources buried deep in the earth. Big Native exploits resources that munch lichen and run freely in large herds across the North.
Big Oil promises to protect the caribou in pursuit of its goal – petroleum products. Big Native promises to protect the herd as it pursues its goal, meat.
Big Oil lobbies to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, birthplace of the Porcupine caribou herd, to get access to the resource that profits its shareholders. Big Native lobbies to restrict access to the same region so it can safeguard and increase the Porcupine herd, the resource that benefits its members.
You get the picture.
The difference between the two is that society loves to challenge the motives and methods of Big Oil. Society doesn’t do a good job challenging Big Native.
Caribou herds provide a great way to explore this hypocrisy.
During the Bush/Cheny administration, when oil industry lobbyists seemed on the cusp of convincing politicians to open ANWR to development, well-meaning musicians, aboriginal leaders, politicians, environmentalists and others flew down to Washington to talk up the importance of the caribou to the people of the North.
For decades, similar efforts have foiled industry efforts to open the Porcupine caribou herd’s calving grounds to oil development.
Meanwhile, back on the muskeg and among the dwarf willows, hunters with sophisticated communications equipment, global positioning systems, high-powered rifles, ATVs and snowmobiles have been slowly wiping out the caribou herds, aided by a fast-changing northern climate.
And, on this, the pro-caribou lobby has been deathly silent.
Take, for example, the Bathurst herd.
It numbered 186,000 animals in 2003. Today, it has dropped to 32,000 animals.
Bill Erasmus, grand chief of the NWT’s Dene Nation, recently shot 17 caribou in a no-harvest zone set up by the territorial government to stave off the extinction of the herd.
“We don’t believe they have authority to prevent us from hunting without agreement from us,” he said in an interview in Up Here.
“In other words, we give them authority.”
The whole issue has become a complicated turf war pitting aboriginal rights against the right of the Crown to protect wildlife from imminent demise.
Aboriginal leaders argue, much like any big industry lobbyist, that caribou go through cycles and the current decline is nothing unusual, so they should be able to continue to manage (hunt) the animals as they have always done.
Essentially, it’s the dontworryaboutit defence.
They are protecting their rights at the expense of the wildlife. Is this any different than a multinational oil company? If so, who, in society, is championing the caribou? Certainly not the conservationists.
In Labrador, despite restrictions to save the Red Wine herd, that is dangerously close to extinction, 250 Quebec Innu crossed the border and shot 250 animals in plain sight of conservation officials. Only one Innu was charged.
The carnage was a protest against the Newfoundland government’s authority over wildlife management.
Again, pro-caribou conservationists have been mute.
And here in the Yukon, with no noticeable development in the region, the Porcupine herd has dropped almost in half, from more than 180,000 animals in the mid 1990s to somewhere around 100,000 today.
The problem is, that’s just a best guess. Officials have no clear idea how many animals remain in the herd because a once-annual photo census has been foiled by bad weather and technical glitches for eight years.
So, in the face of poor information and worries about the herd’s fate, the Yukon government imposed hunting restrictions on the herd that prevented the hunting of cows, reasoning every female killed robs the herd of an estimated 23 animals over the course of a decade.
Aboriginal leaders in the NWT rejected this ban, arguing it undermined its treaty rights. Again, they are placing their rights above the fate of the herd.
As a result, when the joint-management agreement was struck, this limitation was dropped. It’s back to open season on cows and bulls in the Porcupine caribou herd until officials confirm, irrefutably, that it is below 80,000 animals.
Of course, it could already be there. Officials simply don’t know. Which is why the provision was put in place in the first place.
But Big Native wants access to its resource. Dontworryaboutit.
In the face of fast-vanishing caribou herds across the country, should their well-established treaty rights trump the health of the herds? If so, are they any better than any other industry?
Faced with that, the avowed caribou-loving conservationists awkwardly look at their feet or gaze into the sky.
It’s understandably tricky – after all, we’re talking about the actions of our neighbours.
Bottom line, it’s far easier to challenge a faceless multibillion-dollar industry.
Problem is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a salmon fisher, a cod fisher, a lumberjack or a caribou hunter, unfettered harvesting of a so-called renewable resource always ends the same way.
With an empty landscape.
Which raises an interesting question – when the conservation lobby dusts off its bumper stickers in the face of the next push to open ANWR, will there be any caribou left to champion?