Yukon to restrict Porcupine caribou hunt

The Yukon government plans to restrict the Porcupine caribou hunt this autumn.

The Yukon government plans to restrict the Porcupine caribou hunt this autumn.

The proposed regulations would empower conservation officers to charge all hunters, including First Nations and Inuvialuit, if they shoot cows from the fragile herd.

The Porcupine Caribou Management Board opposes the draft regulations. It worries Yukon’s proposed restrictions may jeopardize eight years of hard work to bring native hunters on-side with certain hunting restrictions.

Consultations with First Nations and Inuvialuit on the draft regulations are underway, said Dan Lindsey, Yukon’s director of fish and wildlife.

No final decision has been made on whether or not to introduce the measures, he said. “We have to talk to the folks and hear what their concerns are,” said Lindsey.

But correspondence between Environment Minister Elaine Taylor and Joe Tetlichi, chair of the management board, show that the territory plans to introduce these new regulations despite the board’s objections.

Native and non-native hunters alike would only be allowed to hunt bulls under the plan.

All hunters would also need to hold a hunting tag and report their harvest.

And licensed hunters would only be allowed to take one bull, down from a current limit of two caribou.

This autumn, conservation officers would be encouraged to practice “soft enforcement … that focuses on education and communication,” according to correspondence between Taylor and the board.

This, presumably, means they won’t be doling out many fines during the first year.

The changes are intended to help curb a decline in the herd’s size that started 20 years ago.

Today, it’s estimated that the Porcupine herd numbers slightly fewer than 100,000, although this figure is only a rough estimate.

The last photo-survey was conducted eight years ago, in 2001. Poor weather has hampered new counts since then.

Last autumn, Yukoners voiced fears at a public meeting in Whitehorse that not enough was being done to protect the herd.

Currently, licensed hunters are encouraged to only hunt bulls, but no hard rules are in place.

Now that the territory plans to enact tougher rules, it is facing criticism from another direction: the management board, which fears the imposition of restrictions disrupt hard-earned trust they’ve built with First Nations and Inuvialuit hunters.

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.

Today, the right to hunt of First Nations and Inuvialuit is enshrined in Canada’s Constitution. Restricting this right is only permitted if a “valid conservation reason” exists.

Past attempts at creating a no-hunting corridor along the Dempster Highway, where half of all hunting of the herd takes place, were abandoned several years ago for fear of legal challenge by First Nations.

After eight years, the management board completed its harvest management plan for the herd in June. The board hopes to see the plan signed by mid-August.

The board’s plan would introduce its own regime of restrictions, which would be similar, but not identical, to what the territory proposes.

Under the management board’s scheme, the herd’s population would need to dip below 75,000 before all hunters would be required to only hunt bulls.

And native hunters would be encouraged, but not required, to report their harvest numbers.

The management board is made up of representatives from the federal government, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and five First Nations: the Na Cho Nyak Dun, Gwich’in Tribal Council, Inuvialuit Game Council, Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Vuntut Gwitchin.

Survival of cows is key to the recovery plan for the herd.

The herd has historically cycled through booms and busts. Before modern times, a population crash of the herd would have also triggered a crash in the number of hunters who depended on the caribou as their food supply.

Today’s technology, from grocery stores to all-terrain vehicles and the Dempster Highway that cuts through the herd’s migratory path, have changed this dynamic. Hunting pressure no longer naturally eases as the caribou population drops.

If hunting continues unchecked, the herd’s numbers are expected to go into sleep decline so that, in less than 15 years, there will be fewer than 20,000 caribou left.

If the hunt is cut by half, the herd would still decline in number, albeit less dramatically.

The only way to stabilize the herd is to stop shooting cows, according to the management board.

Every cow killed is equal to losing 23 caribou over 10 years, because not only is the cow lost, but so are its offspring, and the offspring of its descendants.

The herd will stabilize only if hunters take fewer caribou, and shoot only bulls.

Each year about 4,000 Porcupine caribou are believed to be shot. The management board hopes to reduce this annually to 3,000. Another unsettled question is how Yukon’s First Nations will divvy up their portion of the total allowable harvest.

The current hunting level is only a rough estimate. An attempt at a count of the total harvest has not been attempted in more than a decade. The territory wants to require hunters to report their kills in order to firm up these numbers.

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