A month after imposing a hunting ban on the dwindling Bathurst caribou herd, the Northwest Territories may be headed to court alongside the Yukon government.
The ban undermines First Nation treaty rights and members of the Dene Nation want it lifted.
“Meaning, (we’re) looking at legal action, or other actions we may have in front of us,” Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus told the Hay River Hub in late January.
The Bathurst caribou numbered 128,000 in 2006.
Three years later, the herd dropped to 32,000.
The Yukon’s Porcupine caribou could be in a similar predicament.
The animals were last counted in 2001.
At that point, there were 123,000 of them.
But nobody really knows how many Porcupine caribou are harvested each year.
“We can’t postpone conservation when we haven’t had a count for nine years,” said Vuntut Gwichin MLA Darius Elias on Tuesday.
Elias usually takes six bulls each fall to feed his family.
This year, he took two.
“And we’ve been out of meat for months already,” he said.
“Many of my constituents are making similar sacrifices.”
If the Porcupine caribou have anything in common with the Bathurst herd, numbers could be as low as 20,000.
And if the Porcupine herd went through what the Beverly caribou did, it could be much worse.
In the 1980s, a full census of the Beverly herd pegged it at 276,000.
Today, the latest survey found less than 100 animals on the calving grounds.
“There is uncertainty around all the numbers we get,” said Yukon regional biologist Dorothy Cooley, talking about the Porcupine caribou population.
“And the further we get away from that 2001 census, the more uncertain we get.”
In September, the Yukon government imposed a hunting ban on cows from the Porcupine herd.
“The Yukon government is committed to conservation first and foremost,” said former Environment minister Elaine Taylor.
Now, the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Inuvialuit Game Council are taking the government to court for undermining treaty rights.
The ban also undermines Elias’ treaty rights.
But he supports it.
“I view my aboriginal rights as being on a spectrum,” he said.
“At one end is fullest extent, the other is restraint.
“My rights will always be there whether or not I exercise them.”
The Porcupine caribou need to be counted, he said.
“We need a solid census, come hell or high water.”
Elias remembers when some of his constituents were hired to sit on the banks of the rivers with clickers, counting the caribou as they swam across.
These old census tricks need to be brushed off, alongside the new aerial surveys, he said.
“We need rigorous and verifiable harvest data, because right now we don’t know anything.”
Overhunting the Porcupine caribou is one of the greatest threats to the herd, said Elias.
It’s on par with the threat posed to its calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by big oil, he said.
“And the vast majority of my constituents want to see hard conservation measures in place.”
Elias wants to see all the members of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board sit down and agree on conservation measures “so we don’t have to go through the courts.
“We have to decide what kind of ancestors we want to be,” he said.
Contact Genesee Keevil at