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EDITORIAL: Kivalliq caribou: what do you have to lose?

What do Northern Quebec, Southern British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Baffin Island have in common?

All four regions once supported bountiful caribou herds which have now been reduced to the verge of extinction.

Earlier this year Quebec's government announced it would let the last 18 caribou in the Val-d'Or herd die off, because it would cost $76 million over 50 years to try and save it.

In May the federal government ordered the B.C. government to intervene to save what is left of its 3,800 southern mountain caribou, which have been classified as under “imminent threat.”

The case of Baffin Island is no less shocking. The herd which Inuit once depended on for food has been limited to a hunting quota of just 250 since its population dropped to just 5,000 animals in 2014.

Which bring us to the Kivalliq where the mighty Qamanirjuaq caribou roam.

With a population of more than 250,000 at last count, the Qamanirjuaq are arguably the only healthy caribou herd remaining in all of North America.

As impressive as the herd is, it's nothing like it used to be. Thirty years ago they were 500,000 strong – twice what it is now

That's why Cathy Towtongie, MLA for Rankin North and Chesterfield Inlet, is raising alarm bells.

She is calling for Inuit organizations in the region to come up with a plan to better manage the herd, including a suggestion that the commercial hunt be monitored and a quota imposed.

Her comments are sure to ignite controversy. One of the fundamental tenets of the Nunavut Agreement is the right to harvest wildlife.

It's a right that all Inuit hold dear – and understandably so. Long before Northern Stores and Co-ops, the land and the animals that roam it sustained their ancestors for centuries. Even though few families rely entirely on country food to survive these days, caribou and other wildlife remain an important form of sustenance.

The difference today is instead of being seen as food, caribou has now become currency.

It is no secret there are people who make a living selling caribou and there is nothing in the Land Claims Agreements that forbids doing so.

It's difficult to fault a hunter for selling meat to feed their family. Modern life is full of expenses which even a full pantry can't sustain: rent, heating, gas, phone bills, clothes for children. All of these things require money.

Given that there are two times more people (11,000) than caribou on Baffin it is unlikely the market for meat will subside any time soon.

The question is: how many commercial hunters can the herd sustain?

It's a question that's impossible to answer unless we know how much meat is being shipped out across the territory.

It may well be that there is ample room for skilled hunters to harvest caribou for a living. A recent study of the Bathurst herd – which migrates between the NWT and Nunavut – stresses the blame put upon Indigenous harvesters for the caribou's decline is misplaced.

The study found that industrial development as a result of mining was much more damaging to the herd.

But playing the blame game won't do anyone any good if the caribou are gone. There is no single thing that can be done to protect the herd. That's why it makes sense to come up with a plan to monitor the commercial harvest on top of all the other measures which have been introduced.

The Kivalliq is blessed to have a herd which can cover the hills in a blanket of hides every spring and fall. It may sometimes seem infinite, but like all resources it will one day run out if not managed properly.

Having a conversation about conservation sooner rather than later might just prevent the Qamanirjuaq going the way of the Val-d'Or.