The Porcupine caribou herd desperately needs to be counted as evidence mounts its population is in sharp decline, says Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Darius Elias.
Once more than 175,000-caribou strong, the herd could now be as small as 78,000 animals and still be shrinking, according to traditional knowledge from First Nation hunters.
But while the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation has introduced a partial hunting ban in an attempt to reduce pressure on the herd, the proper response to what appears to be a population crisis can’t be known until a count is completed, said Elias during question period on Monday.
“We have no idea what the population is now,” said Elias. “What we do know is that the herd is in decline, and so are the Cape Bathurst and Bluenose West caribou herds.”
The last complete census of the Porcupine herd was in 2001 and there have been four unsuccessful attempts at counts in subsequent years.
Elias is calling on the Yukon government to complete a census this year, examine factors like climate change that could be leading to the herd’s decline, create a check station to monitor Porcupine caribou that are killed and transported to the Northwest Territories, and increase funding to the Porcupine Caribou Management Board for education programs.
Elias also asked Environment Minister Dennis Fentie to consider addressing the United Nations and call for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as other areas the caribou rely upon, to be designated as world heritage sites.
Fentie committed to a “very in-depth count” of the herd this year, and to meet with officials at the management board.
“We recognize the herd is in decline,” he said. “We as a government are going to begin the work with respect to updating our database and getting an accurate count on the herd itself.”
To increase the likelihood of encountering caribou during the census, more helicopters will be used this year instead of fixed-wing airplanes, said Fentie.
Fentie also committed to examining the impacts of climate change on the herd in partnership with the Vuntut Gwitchin and other First Nations that rely on the herd.
But he stopped short of meeting Elias’ demands to speak with officials in NWT about the “commercialization” of hunting Porcupine caribou, or increasing funding to the management board — promising only to meet with the board “in the next little while.”
Fentie and Elias agreed that a government population-recovery program for the Porcupine herd must be avoided at all costs, as that could lead to bans on hunting.
“That’s not where we are at today and, as a government, we have no intention of getting into that position,” said Fentie.
In April, Fentie accepted the management board’s recommendations, promising to work to reduce harassment of the caribou and meat wastage, as well as banning mature male bulls from being hunted between October 10 and November 1.
Fentie also committed to help the board create an education program for caribou hunters and for the Yukon government to help fund it.
Citizens of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, as well as several other First Nations, depend on hunting the Porcupine herd to lead traditional lifestyles.