Northern leaders met Friday to revive flagging talks to protect the endangered Porcupine caribou herd.
The Whitehorse summit, attended by the premiers of the Yukon and Northwest Territories and leaders from five native groups, resulted in a commitment to complete a harvest management plan by March 31.
The parties also hope to have a detailed implementation plan in place within six months.
The Porcupine Caribou Management Board released a draft management plan in June. It had initially hoped to see a final plan signed by August.
High up on the list of outstanding issues is the tricky question of how to allocate the total allowable harvest of caribou among First Nations and Inuvialuit hunters.
The management plan has been in the works for 25 years, since the management board was formed. Its members include five native groups, two territorial governments and Ottawa.
The herd’s current size is estimated to be about 100,000, down from a count of 178,000 in 1989. But the current population figure is only a rough guess because poor weather has hampered annual aerial surveys for the past eight years.
Overhunting is suspected by scientists to be one of the big reasons for the decline. Climate change may be another, but hunting practices are easier to control.
In September, the Yukon government rolled out restrictions against any hunter – native or not – shooting the herd’s cows. This ban is based on the reasoning that 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 no-cow ban is described as an “interim” measure by government, that will be in place until a management plan is done. Still, it hasn’t sat well with some native hunters, who resent what they see as an intrusion on their Constitutionally protected rights to hunt.
Restricting this right is only permitted if a “valid conservation reason” exists.
The draft management plan calls for more lenient measures. It would encourage, but not require, a ban on aboriginals’ hunting cows at the herd’s current population level, and wait until the herd’s size dipped below 75,000 until a hard ban was put in place.
Each year about 4,000 Porcupine caribou are believed to be shot. This, too, is only a rough estimate. A count of the total harvest has not been attempted in more than a decade.
The management board hopes to reduce this annual take to 3,000.
If hunting continues unchecked, the herd’s numbers are expected to go into steep decline so that, in less than 15 years, there will be fewer than 20,000 caribou left.
If the hunt is cut by half, the herd would still decline in number, albeit less dramatically.
The only way to stabilize the herd is to stop shooting cows, according to the management board.
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