Resident bison hunt draws Aboriginal criticism

Resident bison hunt draws Aboriginal criticism
Bison in the Slave River Lowlands are open to non-Aboriginal hunters this year for the first time since the 1980s, but some are worried the diseased herd will be negatively impacted.Photo: File photo.

Aboriginal groups in the South Slave are concerned the recent decision to open the bison harvest to non-Aboriginal hunters in the Slave River Lowlands could have a negative impact on the herd, along with moose populations and existing traplines.

The department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) announced in December that for the first time since the 1980s, resident hunters would be able to purchase one tag each to harvest bison within the Slave River Lowlands management unit near Grand Detour-Hook Lake.

Some Aboriginal harvesters in the area say the herd, which carries bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, is not healthy enough to sustain additional hunting. Smith’s Landing First Nation elder Francois Paulette, who hunts lowlands bison in the Pointe Brulee area twice a year, said the herd has finally achieved a sense of balance after the severe decline in the 1970s caused by over hunting, wolves, disease and forest fires.

“Ever since that time, the herd has never gone up. It always stays at a constant of around 5,000 buffalos (including those in the park). It seems like the wolves and buffalo are now maintaining a balance,” Paulette said.

With disease and the risk of a future anthrax outbreak, Paulette said he is worried those numbers could drop suddenly without warning.

“This herd cannot sustain this hunt from non-indigenous big game hunters. I’ve hunted all the time and I’ve never seen an increase in those herds,” he said.

The population of the lowlands herd, according to a 2009 GNWT survey, is estimated at 1,700 animals, considered “stable” by the department. Though the area between Fort Smith and Fort Resolution boasts between 6-7,000 bison, the majority of those are considered part of the herd belonging to Wood Buffalo National Park.

Though there is no limit on the amount of tags to be issued by the department, only seven tags have been issued so far for the hunting season that ends on Mar. 15: four in Yellowknife and three in Fort Smith.

Hunt is ‘good news’: Minister

ENR Minister Michael Miltenberger said the department left the amount of available tags uncapped because it did not expect a massive surge in resident hunters going for the lowlands bison.

Comparatively, he said, the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary herd – prior to the anthrax outbreak in 2012 – could easily withstand the 100 bison harvested from it each year by a population five times that of the South Slave.

“This is a good news story that the herd has rebounded enough in numbers and in health that all Northerners can now benefit from it as a resource,” Miltenberger told The Journal. “But we’re tracking it carefully and if we have to switch to a draw system or a tag system, that’s something we’ll look into.”

Miltenberger said most bison harvested in the South Slave are not from the lowlands, but from Wood Buffalo National Park, which Aboriginal harvesters take from along the highway when the bison wander outside of the park boundaries.

Métis worried about moose, traplines

Though unopposed to the resident harvest, Fort Smith Métis Council president Ken Hudson said members of the NWT Métis Nation from Fort Smith, Hay River and Fort Resolution are concerned that an influx of hunters to the area could see park bison hunted along the road in addition to the lowlands.

He said people are also worried about additional hunting pressures being put on the moose population, as well as potential impacts on people’s traplines.

“A lot of people in (Fort) Res were concerned about the disturbance of traplines to access these buffalo. They’d be using traditional trails to get to these bison, so there was concern in that respect,” Hudson said.

The Métis also expressed concern over the “confusing” and “inadequate” consultation done on the harvest before Christmas. ENR has since met with the Métis Nation in Hay River last week and has a similar meeting scheduled with Salt River First Nation.

According to Miltenberger, renewable resource officers within the department are ensuring resident hunters receive a package with their tags outlining the area in which they are supposed to hunt, along with maps showing existing traplines and information on identifying diseased animals.

Hunters are required to report to ENR when they are going out hunting and if they are successful, as well as any indications of disease.

The minister said a recent moose population survey shows there is a healthy population of moose in the South Slave, and that difficulties finding moose along the highway means they may have just moved to less accessible areas.

Miltenberger said the department is tracking the outcome of the hunt and using concerns brought forward by Aboriginal groups to modify any future harvesting, as well as consultation.


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