A plan to protect the Porcupine caribou herd is almost signed, six years after planning and negotiations started.
“In my heart, I feel it’s a very good day for the caribou,” said Environment Minister John Edzerza at a signing ceremony in Whitehorse last night.
In attendance were four signatories to the deal: Premier Dennis Fentie; Eddie Taylor, chief of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in; Frank Pokiak, chair of the Inuvialuit Game Council; and Richard Nerysoo, president of the Gwitch’in Tribal Council.
Two chiefs had already signed the deal and could not attend the meeting because of travel commitments: Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Joe Linklater and Na-Cho Nyak Dun Chief Simon Mervyn.
That just leaves the federal and Northwest Territories governments to sign. Both have “committed to this collaborative process,” said Fentie.
The signing of the document won’t cause any immediate changes to how caribou are managed. The Yukon government’s controversial wildlife regulation that bans the hunting of all Porcupine cows will remain in effect until the next step of negotiations is completed: drawing up an implementation plan.
The parties gave themselves six months to complete this task. “The meter is running,” said Fentie.
These future talks will deal with controversial matters, such as how to divvy-up a dwindling number of caribou between competing groups of native hunters.
The parties also still need to sort out how to build a “rigorous and verifiable system for reporting” the number of caribou taken by different groups, according to a news release.
The absence of reliable reporting of caribou kills has been a sore point for the federal government, which has warned it would not sign any agreement without such provisions.
The current management plan has one notable difference from the draft document prepared in June of last year: it slightly raised the threshold at which a bulls-only harvest is enforced, to 80,000 caribou, from 75,000.
But this limit remains less stringent than the Yukon government’s regulations that call for a bulls-only hunt, which were introduced last autumn, when the herd’s population was estimated at 100,000.
Fentie denied this means the new plan is less rigorous. “We’re within the range that’s appropriate to maintaining the precautionary principle,” he said.
And Fentie noted that the current population estimate is shaky, because a photocensus of the herd has been hampered by bad weather for the past eight years.
The Porcupine herd numbered 178,000 in 1989. Since then it’s undergone a steep decline.
Climate change and predation by wolves are all believed to play a part in the herd’s drop, but researchers say overhunting is the main culprit, and the single factor that’s the easiest to control.
While First Nation and Inuvialuit leaders say their hunters are onside with a bulls-only harvest, reports continue to tumble in of caribou cows being shot from the Dempster Highway.
On April 18, conservation officers found four Porcupine caribou carcasses abandoned near Cache Creek on the Dempster Highway. All four were cows.
Nerysoo, of the Gwitch’in Tribal Council, deplored the ongoing harvest of cows.
“I’d be the first person to stand up and say, ‘You need to be charged, because that’s not our way of life,’” he said.
“It makes us angry, too,” said Nerysoo. “It dismays us and it makes us wonder: do people really care? Because if they stop caring, then we really are in trouble.”
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