It’s a tough decision that no one wants to make, but those sitting around the caribou management table in the Northwest Territories anticipate a total ban on the harvest of Bathurst caribou to come down before Christmas.
Aboriginal leaders met last Friday with the department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) for the third time since the numbers emerged showing a drastic decline in the population of the Bathurst and Bluenose-East barren-ground herds.
After running out of time to make any real decisions, yet another meeting is being scheduled for the end of the month. ENR Minister Michael Miltenberger was reluctant to give details on what will be his final recommendation, but Earl Evans of the NWT Métis Nation said everyone should expect zero harvest on the Bathurst, at least for one or two years.
“Damn rights you should expect it. What else can they do? We can’t afford another hunt,” he said of the forthcoming recommendation.
“It’s not a very good situation right now to be hunting with the numbers the way they are. They are really, really low. The Bathurst herd is in real trouble.”
ENR officials were “alarmed” to see the Bathurst population drop to 15,000 animals from the 460,000 that existed in the mid-1980s. Similarly, the Bluenose-East have dropped to around 30,000 animals.
Miltenberger said the situation, in his mind, amounts to a clear emergency that requires immediate action.
“It’s a very tough, emotional, political issue, but at the end of the day, our fundamental obligation is to protect the herds,” he said. “There’s no avoiding that for any government.”
Apart from a ban on the Bathurst, Evans said the other recommendation being put forward is a tag system for the Bluenose-East. Though voluntary restrictions limit the harvest to 2,800, the hunting of twice to three times as many animals since restrictions were imposed on the Bathurst has shown the minister that “voluntary doesn’t work.” Evans said the department is now considering imposing a quota of 1,200 animals.
Along with harvesting restrictions, the department is also discussing predator control, or wolf culling, along with cumulative impacts, industrial development and education on caribou protection.
Though previous discussions resulted in a reluctant, but general, consensus on the part of Aboriginal governments in favour of a zero harvest for the Bathurst last month, Evans said political pressure from the communities pushed the conversation the other way last week, with representatives from the Tlicho Government opening the meeting by contesting ENR’s numbers and defending their treaty rights.
“It was a real turnaround, which is sad to say,” Evans said. “I thought we had accomplished something.”
Evans said the Métis have voluntarily stopped harvesting those herds for the past five years, and said it is time other Aboriginal governments to “start making sacrifices too.”
Representatives from the Tlicho Government did not respond to requests for comment.
The conversation has also been complicated by news from Nunavut’s deputy minister that 70 tags for the Bathurst are legally sold to outfitters across the border each year, meaning hunters from the south are able to take from the herd while subsistence Aboriginal harvesters may not.
“If it was subsistence, people would be much more understanding, but when it’s for profit, that’s problematic,” said Miltenberger, who indicated more discussions would need to be had with the Nunavut government.
“We share many of these herds and their calving grounds,” Miltenberger said, “so we’ve got to get something more definitive from them.”
In the future, Miltenberger hopes to have management plans in place for both the Bathurst and Bluenose herds with outlined thresholds and triggers that prevent a “political uproar” from taking place each time new population counts are released.
He said all governments at the table recognize “there’s no use having a harvesting right if there’s nothing left to harvest,” but said it remains to be seen what the First Nations have to say on the matter. Métis representatives currently support the ENR recommendations.
Miltenberger said he is “confident” the right decision will be made to ensure the survival of the herds.
“You know how I know that? Because I am the one with the final say,” he said.