Barren ground caribou numbers up, but not enough

Barren ground caribou numbers up, but not enough
Most herds are improving in numbers, but variables such as cow and calf health mean barren ground caribou are still considered a species at risk.Photo: GNWT ENR.

Population surveys show most barren ground caribou herds are on the rise, but not enough to lift existing restrictions on harvesting, according to Minister of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) Michael Miltenberger.

Results show the Cape Bathurst herd has increased to around 2,400 animals from 1,900 in 2009. Numbers indicate the Bathurst herd, counted this summer, has swung back from the rapid decline spotted a few years ago to a stable 35,000 animals – a slight increase from 32,000 in 2009. The Bluenose-West herd also saw an increase, with a count of 20,000 up from 18,000 in 2009.

Although surveys were planned for the Bluenose-East and Porcupine caribou herds, Miltenberger said those were not undertaken due to weather conditions and will be done, instead, next summer. Calving and post-calving surveys from 2010 indicated the Bluenose-East herds had increased to about 100,000 animals.

“I want to take this opportunity to recognize the sacrifices made by so many throughout the NWT to help conserve our barren ground caribou herds,” he said. “These sacrifices have made a big difference in helping these herds stabilize and, in some cases, increase.”

Though preliminary results indicate both the Cape Bathurst and Bathurst herds have shown signs of stabilization, Miltenberger said it is still too early to permit unrestricted hunting. Restrictions have limited harvesting of the Bathurst herd to 300 for Aboriginal hunters only since Jan. 1, 2010

“While the halting of this decline is good news, we are not out of the woods yet, as the overall size of this herd remains very low,” Miltenberger said of the Bathurst. “In addition, the number of breeding females has not increased and there has been poor calf recruitment for the past two years.

“Given this, we remain concerned about the overall conservation of the Bathurst herd. The harvest restrictions, as recommended by the Wek’eezhie Renewable Resources Board (WRRB), remain in effect for the 2012-2013 harvest season. This includes 150 hunting tags for the Tlicho people and 150 for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN).”

Though the ban will remain for the time being, Miltenberger said the new numbers warrant a discussion about an unrestricted Aboriginal harvest, as well as the possibility of a limited resident harvest, on the Bathurst herd.

“ENR will begin working with our partners in the WRRB, the Tlicho government, the YKDFN and others on the development of a harvest management plan beyond 2013 and leading to the next planned Bathurst survey in 2015,” he said. “Our plan is to work with our co-management partners to draft a proposal on harvest options by December 2012 so that the board can make recommendations on harvest levels in time for the 2013-2014 hunting season.”

But 2013-2014 is not soon enough, complained Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley, who said the department has had plenty of time to consider a limited harvest for resident hunters.

“The hunting seasons of 2010-2011, 2011-2012, 2012-2013, and now we’re talking about 2013-2014 are going by, have gone by, with no resident quotas,” he said, noting that while Aboriginal harvesters are permitted 2,800 per year from the Bluenose-East herd, resident hunters have been restricted to a zero quota for all herds since 2010.

Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins added his own concerns, asking at what point the herds would finally be considered stable enough to allow harvesting to continue, and whether or not other management approaches – such as culling predators – were being considered.

“Has the minister, working with the boards or co-management partners, have they proposed anything such as hunting more wolves, any type of activities that will help increase the population?” he asked. “To be frank, waiting for the caribou to repopulate themselves to their old numbers may take a generation of our lifetime, not the caribou’s lifetime.”

But when it comes to the Bathurst, Miltenberger responded, wolves do not pose nearly the same risk to caribou numbers as does the harvest.

“It’s one of the most heavily populated areas of the Northwest Territories. It was a herd that was used by all the folks around Yellowknife, all the folks in the South Slave, some from Dehcho,” he said. “Overall, the issue of wolves is not one that is seen as a major factor where we would want to go in and start doing a wolf cull, if that is what the member is suggesting.”

ENR also surveyed the Tuk Peninsula herd over the summer, finding a decline in numbers from 2,700 to about 2,200. The department is awaiting the results of survey work done by the Nunavut government on the territories’ shared Beverly/Ahiak herd, the data of which is expected to arrive this month.

“Discussions with the Beverly Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board and the government of Nunavut are expected to begin as soon as the data arrives, and we hope to see harvest recommendations on this herd in time for the 2013-2014 hunting season,” Miltenberger added.

He said Northerners should expect an update on final survey results, as well as proposed management actions, by February.

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