Porcupine plan to loosen hunting rules

A deal has finally been struck to save the dwindling Porcupine caribou herd. But if you expect a management plan, after six years of negotiations, to lead to stiffer regulation of the caribou hunt, think again.

A deal has finally been struck to save the dwindling Porcupine caribou herd.

But if you expect a management plan, after six years of negotiations, to lead to stiffer regulation of the caribou hunt, think again. The new deal waters down existing rules against shooting cows, which are viewed by biologists as the only hope of the herd’s population rebounding.

On Monday, it was announced that two hold-outs – the governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories – had signed the plan. The Yukon government and five native groups signed the deal in late April.

The management plan, once adopted, would allow native hunters to shoot cows until the herd’s population drops to 80,000. That’s less stringent than the Yukon government’s current ban on all hunters, native or not, shooting cows. The ban was adopted last autumn, when the herd’s population was estimated to be between 90,000 and 100,000, as a temporary measure until the management plan is in place.

That’s not yet the case. While all parties have signed the deal, a separate “implementation plan” still must be negotiated to hash out the nitty-gritty details left out of the signed pact. The parties have given themselves until the end of December to do this.

For instance, the plan calls for First Nation and Inuvialuit groups to collect “rigorous and verifiable harvest information.” Currently, that isn’t happening – in recent years, some groups haven’t reported the number of caribou their hunters have taken.

And without knowing how many caribou are being killed each year by hunters, it’s impossible to accurately manage the harvest.

Another unresolved question is how to divvy up the annual allowable harvest between competing groups of hunters. Each year it’s believed that approximately 4,000 Porcupine caribou are shot, although this number is spotty, because of unreported kills. The management board wants to reduce the annual take to 3,000 caribou – ideally, all of them bulls.

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.

Cows are considered crucial to the future health of the herd. That’s because each dead cow results in 23 lost caribou over 10 years, because not only is the cow lost, but so are its offspring and the offspring of its descendants. Currently, 60 per cent of caribou taken by hunters are cows, according to Environment Yukon.

The signed plan has one notable difference from the draft document prepared by the management board in June of last year: it sets a higher threshold before a bulls-only harvest is enforced, to 80,000 caribou, from 75,000.

At the herd’s currently estimated population, the signed plan would only impose a “voluntary” ban on native hunters shooting cows. A “mandatory” ban would kick in once the population sinks to 80,000.

Native leaders and the management board insist that hunter education, rather than fines doled out by conservation officers, is the best way to ensure that First Nations and Inuvialuit restrain themselves while hunting the herd.

Old hunters still bristle at the mention of game wardens, and remember when seemingly arbitrary rules were imposed upon them. Discontent with paternalistic hunting restrictions was a driving force for the creation of modern land claims.

And Yukon’s ban on hunting cows was met with dismay by some native hunters who felt their constitutionally protected right to hunt were being trammelled. But the Constitution allows governments to curtail native hunting with valid conservation concerns exist, as the territorial government maintains is the case.

All native hunting groups have vowed to try to enforce a bulls-only harvest upon their memberships, according to a release by the management board.

It’s entirely possible that the herd’s population has already sunk as low as 80,000. But it hasn’t been easy for researchers to get a handle on the herd’s size.

Each summer Alaskan researchers try to count the herd as it bunches together on the North Coast by flying over it with an aircraft and using a wide-angle camera mounted to the plane’s belly to snap high-resolution photographs. Biologists later develop the large-format film and use magnifying glasses to count the animals.

But for the past eight seasons these photocensus efforts have been hampered, either by foggy weather, or by the herd dispersing earlier than usual into the mountains, where it’s often difficult to distinguish caribou, seen as little more than specks on film, from craggy rocks and shadows.

This year, scientists will give the photocensus another go. But they will also try another method, in which a plane will fly at lower heights in a grid pattern over the calving grounds and snap several thousand photos in an effort to later stitch together a population estimate.

The herd may travel over 1,000 kilometres during its annual migrations. It winters in Yukon’s Richardson and Ogilvie mountain ranges, then, in the spring, begins a two-month trek towards Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to calf. En route they cross the Dempster Highway, where many hunters from the Northwest Territories and the Yukon gather to hunt the herd.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.