Last year was the worst on record for the Porcupine caribou herd.
Calving numbers were “the lowest we’ve recorded,” said Yukon regional biologist Dorothy Cooley.
But hunting is still going strong.
“I saw five NWT-plated trucks loaded with caribou,” wrote Carcross hunter Brian Melanson, who was on the Dempster Highway last month. “There were over 20 caribou and only seven people; none of them were white, and none of them were bulls.”
Melanson paints a very disturbing picture of the slaughter.
“They were riding around on sleds and shooting everything in sight,” he wrote in an e-mail to the News. “They smash the antlers off with axes and cut the hoofs off, as well.
“You could see caribou with their guts hanging out, or a leg blown off.”
The Yukon government estimates roughly 4,000 Porcupine caribou are harvested annually.
The Gwich’in are responsible for almost half of them.
That’s 2,000 animals a year.
But according to the Gwich’in Tribal Council monitoring station, 500 caribou were shot in the last four years and only nine of them were cows.
That’s only 125 caribou a year.
“I don’t know where they got those numbers,” said Environment spokesman Dennis Senger.
This fall, the Yukon government put a moratorium on hunting cows in an attempt slow the rapid decline of the herd.
Now, the Gwich’in Tribal Council is taking the Yukon to court for undermining its treaty rights.
“We need to get over the fact that there are aboriginal treaty rights and get together from all our different backgrounds and say, ‘Let’s focus on conservation, preservation, and restoring the herds,” said longtime Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Management Board member Ross Thompson.
The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds migrate across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
Thompson joined the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq board in the 1980s and was chair for nearly 10 years.
Back then, the Beverly herd numbered 276,000.
Today, fewer than 100 animals remain.
“Maybe there is a misconception that because there’s a (management) board everything will be OK,” said Thompson.
“But unless you know what the harvest is, and what’s being lost from the population, nobody can manage (the caribou).”
The Porcupine caribou herd hasn’t been counted since 2001. And nobody really knows how many Porcupine caribou are harvested each year.
“There is uncertainty around all the numbers we get,” said Cooley.
“And the farther we get away from that 2001 census, the more uncertain we get.”
It is actually Alaska’s fish and game department
that counts the Porcupine caribou, with Yukon collaboration.
The count usually happens in May or June, when the weather warms up and the bugs come out.
To avoid the insects, the caribou group together and that’s the best time to do a census, said Cooley.
But since 2003 – the first census attempt after 2001 – the weather hasn’t co-operated.
In 2004, forest fire smoke cut visibility. And in the years that followed, the weather didn’t warm up until the caribou had already left the coast for the mountains.
In 2007, Alaskan wildlife officials did attempt a flyover in the mountains, and snapped some good pictures of the herd.
But only the animals in the sun were visible – those in the mountains’ shadows couldn’t be counted.
“Seven failures in a row is pretty humbling,” said Cooley.
The Porcupine herd is suspected to number about 100,000, down from 123,000 in 2001.
But it’s all guesswork.
And the Northwest Territories’ Bathurst caribou herd offers a disturbing parallel.
In 2003, the last time an aerial count was possible, the Bathurst herd numbered 186,000.
Six years later, when the next count was taken, the herd had dropped to 32,000.
Cooley doesn’t think the Porcupine herd’s numbers have crashed that drastically.
“But anything’s possible,” she said.
“There’s a lot we don’t know.”
There’s a lot of confusion over herds and harvest numbers, said Thompson.
“And communities and governments have got to get on the same page with getting a handle on harvest.”
But some First Nation members on Thompson’s board, including the chair, don’t want to see moratoriums on hunting.
“We don’t want to infringe on people’s treaty rights,” said Beverly and Qamanirjuaq board chair Albert Thorassie.
Over the last decade, Thorassie has watched the Beverly herd disappear.
“Young people just pick up a gun and go shooting,” he said.
Instead of taking one animal to feed their family, they kill 50, he said. And they leave the animals to rot, only cutting off the best meat -“it’s a waste.”
But still, a hunting ban is not the solution, said Thorassie.
“The most important thing is education,” he said.
“We need our elders to tell us the difference between cows and bulls.”
Thorassie blames the Beverly herd’s virtual extinction on everything from climate change and overhunting to mining and industrial activity.
“That is one thing we have not been able to get across to government is the importance of creating long-term legislation to protect the calving grounds – the breadbasket, if you will,” said Thompson.
The board makes recommendations to government, said Manitoba member Jerome Denechezhe. “But they’re never enforced or followed up.”
The management board is “forever challenged by industrial activity, mining and outfitting,” added Thompson.
The argument is always that mining and industry “contribute to the economy.”
So, last year the board hired an economist to fight fire with fire.
The value of the annual Beverly and Qamanirjuaq harvest is calculated at $21 million, he said.
Now, when the economic value of mining and industry is touted, “we can counter with, ‘Well, here’s what’s at risk of being lost in terms of the dollars. If that’s the common benchmark you want to use – we’ve got it.’”
While the board wants to see the herd protected, Denechezhe, like Thorassie, doesn’t want to see a hunting ban undermine treaty rights.
“We’ve heard about the slaughter,” he said.
“And if we don’t change the way we hunt, the caribou are not always going to be there.
“But treaty rights are the highest priority in our community.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at