One week after announcing his government won’t enforce the rules that protect the Porcupine caribou herd, Premier Dennis Fentie said he’s committed to conservation.
“In this case what the government wants to do is focus more on conservation and other matters …” Fentie said when asked why he eased hunting restrictions protecting the herd.
“We do not want to see happen to the Porcupine caribou what happened to the Fortymile herd and the Heart herd, which I had to put a moratorium on, in the case of the Heart herd, last year.”
Two regulations do not make the backbone of conservation strategy, he said.
Fentie made his comments just before sitting down with the chiefs of the three northern First Nations — Na-cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in and the Vuntut Gwitchin — at the Edgewater Hotel Tuesday night, after nearly a week of intense public criticism.
The fingers of First Nation chiefs, conservationists and opposition political parties have been pointing at Fentie since he announced a ban on hunting in the 500-metre corridor abutting the Dempster Highway and harvesting herd leaders were not being enforced.
Fentie made the announcement after the Tr’ondek Hwech’in prepared to defend against charges laid on one of its elders for hunting within the corridor during its closure, a charge the First Nation said interfered with aboriginal harvesting rights.
His government regularly consults with First Nations on a variety of issues, including the management of the Porcupine caribou herd, and critics’ views that he did not consult them on this decision are unwarranted, said Fentie.
“Frankly, there’s been a lot of consultation that has gone on with this issue relating to the Porcupine Caribou Management Board for years,” he said.
The Porcupine caribou are the lifeblood of the Vuntut Gwich’in and allowing hunters to blast them from the highway and take down the animals leading the pack where they need to go is not responsible, said Darius Elias, Liberal MLA for Old Crow, on Tuesday afternoon.
Fentie was in the northern community recently to attend the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation general assembly and made no mention of his intentions to relax hunting restrictions on the animals, said Elias.
“At no time during those public meetings were my constituents made aware of this serious Yukon Party government policy shift, at no point in time.
“He didn’t have the courage to look my constituents in the eye and discuss this issue with them when he knows full well that the protection of this herd is the first priority of the Vuntut Gwich’in people.
“They were blindsided, they were shocked and my constituents have gone through a vast array of feelings, from anger to sadness,” he said.
Fentie’s decision not to enforce the hunting restrictions came as Elias and other Porcupine herd supporters were lobbying senators and members of Congress in Washington.
That timing was disappointing, said Elias.
“I went right from Washington into this battle.
“It was pretty, well, you know, going in to fight for the caribou and then coming here and having the premier put increased hunting pressure on a herd that doesn’t need it at this point in time was pretty shocking.
“He blindsided us, in the most underhanded, disrespectful, irresponsible, arrogant way and yet the premier has ‘honourable’ before his name.”
Several caribou herds across the North are known to be in decline, and serious conservation measures — focusing on people’s actions — are needed to ensure the animals survive for generations to come, said Elias.
Aboriginal people have hunting rights, but if the safety of hunters and protection of the herd does not take a priority, subsistence hunting won’t be an option because there won’t be enough caribou to hunt, he said.
Shooting caribou from the highway will put increased pressure on the herd, Joe Linklater, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, said Tuesday afternoon.
“Those are management tools helping us manage the Porcupine caribou herd.”
“In the absence of that, we feel that it’s brought more pressure on the herd now that they can shoot from the highway,” he said.
Hopefully a balance can be struck between First Nation rights and conservation efforts, said Linklater.
“Despite the recommendations made by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, the individual First Nations, it seems, can override them, so what do we do collectively to ensure that there’s a management regime in place?”
The First Nation was looking to move past the initial shock of being informed of the hunting-rule changes through a news release, a miscommunication that Fentie has apologized for, and look for solutions, said Linklater.
Once again, Fentie’s behaviour is disappointing, said New Democrat leader Todd Hardy.
Fentie needs to learn to respect the role and the work of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board if he’s going to take conservation seriously, Hardy added.
Fentie is not being consistent in his dealings with First Nations, said Hardy.
Earlier this year, the Fentie government appealed a Yukon Supreme Court decision that ruled his government failed to properly consult the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation about an agricultural lease in its traditional territory.
In this latest decision, he has abandoned hunting restrictions in the face of a First Nation court challenge, said Hardy.
“There’s definitely a double standard.”
The caribou management board should have made the decision, said Hardy.
Members of the board could not be reached for comment.