Resource extraction is the money-maker in the territory, but will the price be the most precious resource we have?

The issue: Protecting the herds
We say: A hydra of a problem

Caribou herds have been in decline for many years now, with the last large numbers for the majority of the herds being reported in 1994.

While the polar bear seems to get the lion’s share of attention, these ungulates could be argued to have the most significance of any animal in the territory.

In these uncertain times, spotty food security is combined with a global pandemic and a rising tide of regulations – intended to help, of course, but often leaving hunters and communities stymied in their efforts to feed their hungry.

And when harvesters stand to gain between $300 to $1,000 per caribou it becomes another level of difficulty where, as Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main says, some hunters “are seeing caribou as cash,” another way to solve their own economic insecurities.

There is no exact cause we can pinpoint for why the herds continue to shrink, despite management best practices from both traditional knowledge and government bureaucrats of all stripes. It is a many-headed problem, mired in distrust and the desire to do what is best for both present and future generations.

While some are quick to point the finger at harvesters and the Government of Nunavut seems eager to draw a hard-and-fast total allowable harvest line for individual populations, many are convinced that resource extraction plays a much bigger part in the overall decrease in size.

“I think, you know, the overemphasis on harvest management and managing Indigenous harvest is a distraction from what is really a central issue, which is disturbance of the caribou range in the case of the Bathurst and elsewhere,” said Brenda Parlee, Canada Research Chair in resource economics and environmental sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Parlee is also lead investigator of a 2018 study titled Undermining subsistence: Barren-ground caribou in a “tragedy of open access.”

“There are myriad successes that are attributed to co-management processes in the Canadian North; there are also strong critiques of wildlife co-management as being a system of governance that is more focused on the management of Indigenous peoples than natural resources,” she stated.

The total allowable harvest for the Bathurst herd for the 2019-2020 season was 250 animals, that cap was reached Feb. 25. Earlier this month, the Department of Environment announced that only 42 Dolphin and Union caribou can be harvested as an interim measure after the latest GN analysis shows the herd is in sharp decline.
Some, like Ekaluktutiak HTO chair Bobby Greenley, are skeptical of the GN’s figures due to the way they conduct population estimates.

Parlee said Indigenous oral histories indicate caribou population cycles tend to play out over 40 to 70 years. During low points, communities coped by harvesting other species and sharing resources, she said.

The same resilience and forward thinking is still in use in our communities, but we cannot simply hope that we have hit the low point in a cycle and the herds will return to their previous strength.

We must continue to improve monitoring so it is done efficiently and optimally and strike a balance between extraction of non-renewable resources and ensuring the disturbance of these migratory herds does not result in their eventual extinction.

The stakes are too high.

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