Porcupine caribou plan not enough, residents fear

A plan to curb hunting of the Porcupine caribou herd received a skeptical response from a crowd of Whitehorse residents at a meeting Thursday night.

A plan to curb hunting of the Porcupine caribou herd received a skeptical response from a crowd of Whitehorse residents at a meeting Thursday night.

Those who spoke at the meeting echoed a common theme: they feared the plan would, in the words of one man, be “too little, too late” to preserve the fragile herd.

The herd’s population is currently estimated to be slightly less than 100,000 by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board. Each year about 4,000 Porcupine caribou are believed to be shot.

If hunting continues unchecked, the herd’s numbers are expected to go into sleep 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.

Every cow killed is equal to losing 23 caribou over 10 years, because not only is the cow lost, but so are its offspring, and the offspring of its descendants.

The herd will stabilize only if hunters take fewer caribou, and shoot only bulls.

Under the proposed plan, the current population of the herd would not require any limits to hunting.

Hunters would merely be encouraged to take fewer caribou, and to take bulls only.

The herd would need to decline to fewer than 75,000 caribou before a mandatory bull hunt would be imposed.

If the herd declined to fewer than 50,000 caribou, a ban on hunting would be imposed, with an exception for hunting performed for ceremonial purposes by First Nations.

But these rules may be too relaxed, several residents said at the meeting.

They want hunting to be curbed immediately so the herd has a better chance to recover.

“If we wait too long for management action … we’ll be past the point of no return,” said Darius Elias, MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin.

Climate change is causing calves to die in deep snow, or to drown in rushing rivers in recent years, he said.

These changes, combined with over-hunting, may push the herd over the edge, said Elias.

A management plan may be in place one year from now.

But Vuntut Gwitchin member Norma Kassi also said immediate action is needed.

She had trouble with some explanations offered by board representatives as to why developing a plan takes so long.

Any plan must respect five separate land claim agreements, said board members.

The management board has eight signatories who represent different levels of government and First Nations.

“Since when do land claims supersede protection of Porcupine caribou?” said Kassi.

“It’s something the government needs to take control of right now,” she said.

Native hunting rights may be restricted by governments if there is a valid conservation reason.

But the Yukon government has indicated it will not curb hunting by itself. It is but one of many players involved, it says.

The government could also help by putting more conservation officers on the ground, another attendee said. There are probably more employees in the Whitehorse Canadian Tire than there are conservation officers in the territory, he added.

Hunters from the Northwest Territories take about 65 per cent of the total annual kill. But most hunting occurs in the Yukon, along the Dempster Highway.

One resident suggested an outright ban on highway hunting.

But board representatives countered that, “if we completely block access,” groups of hunters would “walk away” from any deal.

Some NWT communities have announced they will not obey hunting rules set upon other caribou herds in decline.

This worried Kassi and other Yukon residents at the meeting.

Marsha Brannigan, a board representative from the NWT, stressed the need for native groups to work together, rather than blame each other for poor hunting practices.

A Yukon News article that described NWT residents hunting off the Dempster with all-terrain vehicles and high-frequency radios was unproductive, she said.

“That was a crap article,” she said. “They did nothing wrong.”

The hunters used ATVs to retrieve their kills only because they feared bears in the area, she said. And they later gave meat away for free to people who had none, she added.

“We need to stop pointing fingers,” she said. “We need to think together.”

If a management plan is ratified by all parties, its rules could be enforced by conservation officers who could, for example, fine a First Nation hunter who shot a cow during a bulls-only season.

But board representatives emphasized the need for hunter education, so that bulls could be accurately identified, and community “buy-in” of any rules.

Most community hunters understand the herd is in decline and that hunting restrictions may be needed, said Joe Tetlichi, chair of the management board.

He acknowledged there may be “a few bad apples” who feel otherwise.

“We’re just the management board. The communities need to take responsibility,” he said.

“And if they don’t, what are we supposed to do?”

It was a question no one answered.

The management board plans to continue consulting until January.