Despite an alarming drop in caribou numbers across the North, the Gwich’in Tribal Council and Inuvialuit Game Council are fighting conservation measures in court.
The latest suit involves the Yukon government’s attempts to protect the Porcupine caribou herd.
Nobody knows for sure how many caribou are left. It is believed the herd has dropped to 100,000 animals, down from 178,000 in 1989.
But bad weather has prevented an aerial count of the herd on Alaska’s North Slope since 2003.
However, the Northwest Territories’ Bathurst caribou herd offers a disturbing parallel to the Porcupine.
The last time an aerial count was conducted on the NWT Bathurst herd, also in 2003, it numbered 186,000 animals. Last year, when the next count was taken, the herd had dropped to 32,000.
“It’s a very steep drop, so that was the initial red flag - the herd is in the red zone, in terms of danger for survival,” NWT Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger told the CBC.
In late September, to help slow the Porcupine caribou’s rapid decline, the Yukon government banned the hunting of cows, calculating that every one killed is equal to losing 23 caribou over 10 years, counting its offspring and the offsprings’ offspring.
But now, that September hunting ban has landed the Yukon government in court.
In an affidavit before the Yukon Supreme Court, the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Inuvialuit Game Council claim the hunting restrictions violate their treaty rights and are invalid.
“But the issue is not hunting cows,” said Gwich’in Tribal Council president Richard Nerysoo on Tuesday. In fact, documentation from the tribal council monitoring station shows that in the last four years, 500 caribou were shot and only nine of them were cows, he said.
The Gwich’in get a bad rap in the Yukon, added Nerysoo. “There’s this idea we’re out there on the (Dempster) with trucks and radios and ATVs and are irresponsible hunters.
“But it doesn’t mean we can’t be a responsible hunters, just because we’re driving trucks,” he said. “And ATVs are not necessarily a problem either, if you want people away from the highway.”
The problem is lack of consultation, he said.
Both the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit support the creation of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, said Nerysoo. “And we were engaged in developing a plan.”
But when the territorial government imposed the September ban on cows, the Gwich’in were blindsided, he said.
In harvest management plans we create thresholds, said Nerysoo. When the caribou herd drops to a set number, certain actions are taken, and these decisions are taken to community members for review, he said.
“So when it comes time to make decisions and support the government on legislation or policy, we’re onside, because we’re all agreed to how we manage thresholds, and all know what the rules are of the game.
“When decisions are made, they should be made with a certain amount of respect for how communities might react.”
And that didn’t happen with the ban on cows, said Nerysoo.
“People respect the need for a managed harvest, but we can’t respect something done in the absence of our involvement.”
The Yukon’s hunting ban was described as an interim measure, until a management plan is completed by the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, which has representatives in the Yukon, the NWT, Ottawa and five First Nations: the Gwich’in, Inuvialuit, Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Vuntut Gwitchin.
The board released a draft plan in June, which has fewer teeth than the current Yukon restrictions. The board only recommends a voluntary ban on hunting cows.
“We still want to create an appropriate management plan,” said Nerysoo. “And we don’t dispute decisions have to be made in the future by governments, but we have to respect the treaties that have been negotiated.”
The NWT imposed a full hunting ban of the rapidly declining Bathurst caribou, which applies to aboriginal and non-aboriginal hunters.
But the Bathurst caribou are not the only herd in trouble. Nine of Canada’s 11 barren-ground caribou herds are in decline, according to scientific reports.
And the Beverly herd has virtually disappeared, despite numbering 280,000 animals only 15 years ago.
Contact Genesee Keevil at