Some people like to look at caribou. Some people like to kill and eat them. It’s a conflict as old as time, or at least as old as eco-tourism.
Environmentalists have made poster animals out of the caribou in the Porcupine herd. It migrates annually to calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which are under threat from oil and gas exploration.
The Dempster Highway is the only road in Canada that crosses their migration route, and as such is the easiest place to witness the majestic herd.
It’s also the easiest place to shoot them.
The 2010 harvest management plan estimated that about 4,000 Porcupine caribou per year are hunted, and over half of these are taken from the Dempster Highway.
A slaughter of that scale in a concentrated area is bound to upset the people who show up simply to admire the awesome migration.
“It feels kind of lawless, on the Dempster Highway,” said Maarten Harteveld from Holland, who has been in the area as a tourist during hunting season the last two years.
When the group he was with was driving south on a recent evening, they stopped when they saw what appeared to be a vehicle in distress, he said.
When they got out, they saw a few hunters, beer cans outside the car, and a caribou carcass being butchered next to the road.
Because the tourists suspected that the hunters were intoxicated and suspected that they may have conducted their hunting in an unsafe and illegal manner, they alerted the authorities.
They tried calling the RCMP in Dawson and conservation officers before getting through to the RCMP in Whitehorse. They were told that they were too far away for RCMP from either Whitehorse or Dawson to respond.
Torrie Hunter, a conservation officer in Dawson, said that the RCMP did respond to the call but were unable to find the hunters, who may have continued travelling north.
Last year, a group Harteveld was with on the Dempster near the Northwest Territories border changed their plans because they felt unsafe near the hunting activity, he said.
It was foggy and they had seen several pickup trucks slowly driving up and down the road, looking for caribou. They decided it would be unwise to hike out from the highway and risk getting mistaken for an animal.
Harteveld respects hunting, but it seems like for some people it is “just fun to shoot,” he said.
However, he hasn’t seen any evidence that anyone is killing animals for sport without butchering and taking their meat.
Legally, the hunters, whose ancestors have depended on the caribou for thousands of years, appear to have the upper hand.
Any beneficiary to the Porcupine Caribou Management Agreement, including N.W.T. Gwich’in, Inuvialuit, and Yukon First Nations, can hunt the caribou at any time, from anywhere, save the roadside. Those groups account for 90 per cent of the harvest, according to reports.
Dangerous hunting, however, is against the law for anyone. It includes shooting while standing on the road surface, across the road, more than an hour after sunset, and while impaired by alcohol or other substances.
Christopher Fragassi has led expeditions in the area for over 10 years, and said that officials are not doing enough to police these infractions.
“We lead expeditions in that area because clients want to go there, and they want to see caribou (alive). Every year, we expect that illegal hunting activity will be kept in check by authorities, hence our decision to proceed with trips,” he wrote in an email.
Hunter, the Dawson conservation officer, said that they have had patrols out over the last two weeks, some in plainclothes, and although dangerous hunting infractions are a concern, recent activity has been quiet.
The officers also look for meat being wasted and require hunters to produce identification proving their right to hunt.
“At times, it’s not pretty. They shoot multiple numbers of caribou, drag them to the road, gut them and put them in vehicles. Is that poaching? No, it’s not, if they’re subsistence harvesters,” Hunter said.
In 2007, the Yukon government announced that it would no longer enforce a 500-metre no-hunting corridor on either side of the Dempster and a one-week closure allowing the herd leaders to pass. This was done in response to a challenge brought forward by a member of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation.
In 2011, hunting restrictions were loosened after the herd, which had been in decline, rebounded to an estimated 169,000 animals.
The aboriginal harvest is unrestricted when the herd reaches 115,000 animals, according to the 2010 management plan. Other licensed hunters can take up to two male caribou.
Local First Nation governments collaborated with federal and territorial governments on the plan.
The document spends five pages outlining best practices for hunting near the Dempster Highway, because “consensus was not reached on the universal application of any laws.”
The suggestions include leaving the caribou closest to the highway and shooting instead at isolated groups farther away.
Safety recommendations include never shooting across the highway, paying attention to others in the area and wearing “blaze orange,” which caribou cannot see.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at