Caribou pledge met with … crickets

The Yukon government is ready to sign a management plan for the Porcupine caribou herd, Environment Minister John Edzerza announced last week.

The Yukon government is ready to sign a management plan for the Porcupine caribou herd, Environment Minister John Edzerza announced last week.

It sounds great, except the territory is just one of eight parties at the bargaining table, and none of the others have piped up to say they’re ready to seal the deal.

Principals – including the premiers of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, a federal representative and leaders of five native groups – met in Whitehorse in January in an effort to push forward flagging talks.

By the meeting’s end, everyone agreed to aim to sign a management plan by March 31, a deadline that passed unremarked by all.

Officials have spent the past few months grinding away at several outstanding issues. Based on Edzerza’s comments in the legislature, it appears most of these problems haven’t been solved, but instead put off for later.

It remains unclear whether the territory will stick to its guns and maintain its controversial ban on hunting Porcupine cows, which applies to all hunters, native or not. Edzerza would only say that new regulations are forthcoming and that public meetings will be held. He didn’t say when.

The ban on shooting cows was announced in the autumn, to the dismay of some native hunters who feel their constitutionally protected right to hunt is being trammelled.

The draft management plan calls for more lenient measures. It would encourage, but not require, a ban on hunting cows at the herd’s current population estimate of about 100,000 caribou. A mandatory ban on shooting cows would not kick in until the herd dropped to 75,000 animals.

It appears as if a compromise has been reached by the parties on where this threshold should sit, but the outcome remains a secret for now.

Cows are considered crucial to the future health of the herd. That’s because each dead cow results in 23 lost caribou over 10 years, because not only is the cow lost, but so are its offspring and the offspring of its descendants.

The only way to stop the herd’s abrupt decline is to stop shooting cows, according to the management board. Currently, 60 per cent of caribou taken by hunters are cows, according to Environment Yukon.

Each year it’s believed that 4,000 Porcupine caribou are shot. The management board wants to reduce that number to 3,000.

But hunting records remain spotty, in part because not all native groups currently report their members’ kills.

It will be impossible to say whether the management plan’s goals are being met unless the annual harvest is better monitored, according to the Yukon and federal governments. Both governments warned over the past year they could not sign the plan without better reporting requirements in place.

As the Yukon government’s representative, Doug Larsen, asked at a June meeting, “If there are only voluntary bull-only harvesting practices, how does that get monitored? How do we know, for instance, that only 3,000 bulls will be taken?”

But the territory is now willing to deal with reporting rules later. A future implementation plan will need to include “a rigorous and verifiable system for reporting,” said Edzerza.

It remains to be seen whether Ottawa is as flexible. In a letter written shortly before the January summit, Environment Minister Jim Prentice wrote that “without proper monitoring of the plan’s effectiveness, the viability of the herd could be unintentionally jeopardized.”

Another outstanding concern is the tricky business of how to divvy up a shrinking number of caribou between competing interest groups. This, too, will be dealt with in future agreements.

The Porcupine caribou herd is believed to have shrunk by nearly half over the past two decades. Climate change may have exacerbated the herd’s decline, but overhunting is believed to be the main culprit.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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