Snowmobiles and caribou don’t mix

Growing up in the Yukon, one of the great mysteries and wonders of our territory was the 100,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd.

COMMENTARY

Growing up in the Yukon, one of the great mysteries and wonders of our territory was the 100,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd. As a young kid, I heard fascinating stories and saw video of thousands of caribou crossing the Porcupine River. The herd always held a sense of wonder and awe, and I believe it helps define our culture and territory.

In 1999, I was lucky enough to spend a year teaching in Old Crow and saw the innate connection between the Gwich’in people and the Porcupine herd. It is a connection that is based on thousands of years of respect.

I’ve hunted the herd for food and travelled to their calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve also worked to protect the future of the herd with the Caribou Commons Project. I’m very proud of the measures being taken by the Yukon government, the Vuntut Gwichi’in and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board as a means to protect the herd. The government’s recent decision to fight the legal battle over hunting rights in the Yukon takes courage and foresight.

However, with herds across the Arctic disappearing, it would appear that we have not done enough to protect the herd. There is more we can and must do to prevent the devastation of the herd – it is time we banned snowmobile hunting on the Dempster Highway.

Over Christmas, I took my family up to Eagle Plains. We saw groups of caribou on the way up and down. We also saw hunters, nonnative and First Nation, using snowmobiles to chase caribou. At one point, we were watching a group of caribou a kilometre or two off the highway, when a group of hunters pulled up and decided to give chase on their snowmobiles. The caribou were at least a kilometre away and panicked at the sound of the snowmobile engine. Though they could not even see the snowmobile in the willows, the caribou sprinted off in an array of directions.

A thousand caribou were disturbed from their resting and feeding for around an hour, as the hunt progressed. They used precious energy reserves, lost eating time and endured great stress. Perhaps this type of hunting would not be so harmful if it happened once a week, but it was happening a couple of times a day. This type of harassment has a negative impact on the survival of the caribou and their reproduction rates.

I’ve also heard many hunters and First Nation elders talk about how the snowmobile hunting pushes the caribou out of their prime feeding habitat of the open plains and into the forest.

While it is harder for hunters on snowmobiles to find them, the snow is deep, making movement harder on the caribou, and the food is less bountiful. This greatly weakens a herd that is having trouble reproducing.

Snowmobile hunting has horrendous effects on the entire herd. It should be stopped, so that my children and your children have a Porcupine caribou herd to experience, to eat, and to see. It should be the next step put forward by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board and the Yukon government, if we want to get serious about protecting part of our culture and heritage.

Peter Mather is a freelance photographer who lives in Whitehorse.

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