The Yukon government and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in have officially signed the Fortymile caribou harvest management plan.
The plan received both technical and local input from both governments, the Dawson District Renewable Resources Council and the Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board. The plan aligns with the requirements of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Final Agreement.
“This plan is long overdue and we’re pleased to finally see it come to life,” said Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph in a statement.
“It provides for the harvest management of the herd on this side of the Canada-U.S. border and is a tool which allows our governments to make informed decisions on harvest and habitat based on the herd’s health and population and scientific and traditional knowledge,” she said.
The management plan sets out criteria for how the organizations involved will make decisions about annual harvests and research and education.
In the 1970s the Fortymile caribou herd had an all-time low of 6,500 animals. The herd has now grown to an estimated 84,000 animals after years of conservation and voluntary hunting stops by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.
At this point the herd is so large that harvest is being encouraged by biologists as a management strategy to support conservation. The long term goal of the government and the First Nation is to increase the range of the herd into a larger habitat distribution within the territory.
The current harvest season goes from Dec. 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021 or when the threshold limit of 300 caribou is reached.
Two other harvests were opened between Aug. 1 and Sept. 9 in 2020, and Jan. 1 to March 31 also in 2020. At that time the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in asked that a harvest management plan be finalized before other harvests were announced.
This summer the First Nation held its first community hunt in many years – after a voluntary pause on hunting for the past three decades that impacted an entire generation.
“The plan will guide licensed and subsistence harvest as well as overall herd management into the future,” said Environment Minister Pauline Frost, announcing the agreement in the legislature.
“It has three main goals: promote a robust, sustainable population that will maximize the herd’s use of habitats within historical Yukon ranges; provide a phased approach to implementing harvest, given the long history of no-harvest of this herd; and increase knowledge and use of the herd through education and engagement,” she said.
Because of the wide-ranging nature of the herd, ongoing management will need to consider the Alaska Fortymile Harvest Plan on the other side of the border.
The herd’s range starts east of Fairbanks, Alaska, and goes past Dawson, west of Pelly Crossing. At the moment 65 per cent of the sustainable harvest will take place in Alaska, and 35 per cent will take place in the Yukon.
“Alaska has, of course, the habitat and the herd tends to migrate more frequently in the State of Alaska. That allocation, in terms of the herd range, is much larger. We have indicated some challenges there and want to continue to work with Alaska as we look at the sustainability of that herd long term,” said Frost in the legislature.
The Yukon has 25 distinctive herds of woodland caribou and two herds of barren ground caribou.
Of those herds, two are in decline; the Finlayson caribou herd and the Kluane caribou herd. Five herds have unknown status, while the others are either stable or increasing.
The Finlayson caribou herd – with a range in the traditional territory of the Ross River Dena Council – was closed for hunting in 2018. The herd has been on decline since the 1990s and had an estimated population of 3100 in 2012.
In the 2018-2019 season the Yukon government had plans to issue 30 permits, but cancelled the season after concerns were raised by the Ross River Dena Council. The council said it would be handing out 15 of its own caribou permits due to concerns about herd numbers.
“So, the department is working with the Ross River Dena Council around the herd management and stabilizing the herd so that we can see increased harvest levels — a very similar situation with what we have seen historically with the Fortymile,” Frost said during a legislature discussion on Nov. 24.
“We’ll continue that work with our partners and we’ll eventually see the numbers rise back up so that we can open up the herd to a public process in the future,” she added.
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