Caribou Concerns: Beyond the Online Scandal

In light of the growing discussion around a Catholic school educator’s social media comments concerning the Tlicho’s community hunt of the Beverley and Ahiak caribou herd, we thought it a good time to offer up some history on caribou herds and their decline.

In 2007, Canadian Geographic magazine identified the rapidly declining Bathurst Caribou herd as their Wildlife Story of the Year, and asked me to delve into the issue. Eight years ago, the government estimated the herd was 128,000 animals — down from 470,000 in 1986.

A reconnaissance survey done last spring puts the Bathurst herd at just 15,000 animals today.

So much has happened so quickly since I wrote this piece. All commercial and non-aboriginal hunting of the Bathurst herd was banned. Hunting tags were introduced for Dene, and then in January, the territorial government revoked the issuing of those tags, imposing an all-out hunting ban on the Bathurst herd, with only a few exceptions.

And yet all of the other pressures on the herd remain: oil, gas and diamond mine activity on their migration routes, easier access to herds on ice-roads, increased insect harassment because of climate change, pollution, natural predators and cyclical population downturns.

The one constant in all of this is the Dene’s dependence on caribou.

I hope you can make time for this long-read which brings historical perspective to this complex and important issue that affects all of us.

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This article, slightly modified, first appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2007 issue of Canadian Geographic

My oldest son was a babe in arms when the caribou migrated further south and west than usual, arriving unhurried, and unannounced, at our frozen lake. First in small groups, then swelling into hundreds, then thousands, their leggy, silver-brown bodies moved like puffs of campfire smoke in the morning fog, their sharp-edged hooves carving into ice like teeth into snow cones.

Perhaps it was the caribou’s giving nature (aboriginal people credit their very existence to the abundant charity of the herds, believing caribou offer themselves for food, shelter and clothing in return for respect and good behaviour), perhaps they did not know to distrust us, but as we stood awestruck amongst them, they soldiered past with minimal wariness, unfazed as well by the steady crack of gunfire.

I live in Chief Drygeese territory, on Weledeh Yellowknives Dene lands, also known as Ingraham Trail. In October 1992, an unprecedented number of hunters of all stripes flocked down that road to the frozen killing fields in pickup trucks and snowmobiles. I wondered, can the Bathurst caribou herd – then 250,000 animals strong – survive this level of human pressure?

The answer, according to the Northwest Territories government, is no.

More than 4.4 million wild caribou roam the northern reaches of the planet, 3 million of them in North America, making them the most abundant large mammals on the continent. But don’t let their lofty numbers fool you. They are found in the most brutally cold climes of every province and territory north and west of Newfoundland, from the boreal forest and Cordillera to the High Arctic and Alaska, yet they are feeling the heat, so to speak. According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, seven of the twelve caribou populations on the continent are either threatened, endangered or of special concern. There are still some migratory herds on the Arctic barren-lands and forest-tundra areas of Quebec and Labrador that are not on conservation lists, but in the Northwest Territories, the largest herd – the Bathurst – has declined 74 per cent in the last 20 years, pitting them in the eye of a brewing storm between aboriginal leaders, the territorial government and outfitters over what to do about it.

All things being equal, aboriginal knowledge and science concur that migratory herds have natural boom-and-bust cycles that span roughly 30 to 40 years, likely because of long-term climate patterns. The last time caribou were scarce was in the late 1970s, when people hunted with dog teams or low-powered snowmobiles. There were few aircraft or roads, no outfitters and caribou didn’t wear satellite collars that tracked their movements on the Internet (a service for hunters the territorial government revoked this year out of conservation concerns.)  “So it was a lot harder last time when caribou were low for people to find caribou and it means that the harvest levels declined naturally. We don’t think that’s the situation today,” Sue Fleck, director of wildlife for the Northwest Territories government, told a caribou management hearing last spring.

With climate change, diamond mines, ice roads between communities and into the barren grounds, oil and gas exploration, a pending pipeline, 10 licensed outfitters and more people, all things are no longer equal for migratory herds in the Northwest Territories.

But for the indigenous peoples in Canada whose ancestral dependency on the herds dates back thousands of years – some of whom call themselves Caribou People – to not hunt and eat caribou would be like cutting off a piece of themselves.

“So, as Chipewyan people, we are descendants of the caribou,” concludes Danny Beaulieu, a Yellowknife wildlife officer, as he recounts to me the creation story passed down to him from his grandmother. A bull caribou leading his herd off the tundra into the treeline for the winter turns into a man in order to help a starving widow and her two daughters repopulate and feed their decimated village. Beaulieu’s grandmother remembers hard times when the caribou were scarce, around 1917, and how their migration sounded like thunder when the herds were strong again in the mid-1920s. Their word for caribou – etthen – also means star, an example of celestial reverence for an animal they believe came from the stars, bridging the fine line between life, starvation and the spirit world.

Before there were trading posts or Walmart, caribou provided food, clothing, shelter, tools, weapons, thread, sleds, drums, even baby soothers and menstrual pads for the people they shared the land with.  Archaeologists date this relationship back 8,000 years in places like the eco-rich Thelon River Basin, straddling the NWT/Nunavut border. Until the last century, the Etthen-eldili Dene – or Caribou Eaters – were so influenced by the seasonal migration that almost all births took place nine months after herds were intercepted at summer water crossings on the tundra. In 2007, caribou remained the primary source of protein for most aboriginal people in the Northwest Territories, where 72 per cent of households eat meat or fish obtained through hunting or fishing.

James Pokiak is a hunter and outfitter in the oil-rich coastal community of Tuktoyaktuk, home to the Inuvialuit, or western Arctic Inuit. He says the average family of five needs 20-25 caribou per year, meat that’s not easily replaced in a community where a jug of milk costs $12.  He voluntarily reduced his hunt to two this year. In 2005, he lost his outfitting business after his game council and the territorial government banned tourists from hunting the herd in steepest decline, the Cape Bathurst. Pokiak says it may be a natural low cycle — “there are some people in my community who are seeing this with the caribou for their third time” — but doesn’t discount the possibility that oil and gas exploration has driven them away, or that the proposed natural gas pipeline courted by his Inuvialuit leaders could make matters worse. “Their allegiance seems to be more with big oil than the caribou,” Pokiak says.

Aboriginal people want, indeed their bodies need, caribou meat.  But they also need jobs to buy the $1.45/litre gasoline required to go hunt them.  So when big oil and mining companies come a-knocking in caribou country, there hasn’t been the political, or popular, will to close the door.

There are now four diamond mines in the Bathurst range, and no end in sight.  In 2004 alone, over 2 million hectares of new mineral claims were staked in the Northwest Territories. Caribou biologist Anne Gunn says the jury is still out as to whether the mines are affecting herd size. Cumulative effects are unknown. At an individual level, some caribou, particularly cows and calves, are avoiding the mines, possibly because of dust. Mine studies show airborne pollutants from their operations, such as ammonia and nitrate, are settling into the lichens caribou feed on. “We don’t know what the change in concentrations mean to the caribou, but certainly the elders see it as a huge concern,” says Gunn.

A caribou monitoring sign at Diavik mine | Photo by Laurie Sarkadi

The mines are required under strict environmental agreements to monitor all caribou activity. They’ve constructed lines of inuksuit, rock structures meant to resemble people, to discourage the animals from entering properties. They work to keep their boundaries “porous,” using very little fencing, so animals that do wander in can also wander out. Wildlife always has the right of way, and some trucking is halted during migration.

The 570-kilometre winter ice road that supplies the mines from January to March is getting a lot of attention. Where the patchy pavement past my house abruptly ends, the winter road begins. A two-lane highway over frozen lakes, past the treeline to the barren grounds. A record 11,000 truckloads of fuel, cement and freight wound their way through the Bathurst range this year,  ‘paving’ the way for anyone with a pickup truck and a rifle to follow. So far aboriginal leaders have been cool to a territorial government proposal to ban hunting along all winter roads, although it is a measure they are considering.

Paradoxically, in 2006, the winter road to the diamond mines closed early after warm weather made the ice unstable, forcing the mines to fly up diesel fuel to keep operating. All this warm weather is renewing interest in building a deep-sea port and all-weather road in Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut – the calving grounds of the Bathurst herd – as an alternative supply route.

Longer summers on the tundra also mean an increase in harassing insects. Caribou twitch and huddle together from mosquitoes, or run in panic from warble flies, stressing them and reducing their ability to feed their calves, gain fat and multiply.  Heavier snowfalls in winter keep them from reaching the lichens that sustain them during cold months.

Waste rock from diamond mines is altering caribou migration routes on the Barrens | Photo by Laurie Sarkadi

So, what to do about it all?

On the global warming front, there’s little Canada can do in the immediate sense to cool down the planet in time to thwart a caribou crisis. Between 1996-2001, during the northern diamond rush, greenhouse gas emissions in the Northwest Territories increased 60 per cent. The territorial government estimates those levels will double or triple if the Mackenzie Gas Project, including a pipeline through woodland caribou territory, is built.

Killing off predators such as wolves and grizzlies is a costly and controversial prospect, one the government says is largely redundant, since those animals tend to fluctuate with caribou herd sizes anyway.

Which leaves only one quick-fix conservation measure. Restrict hunting.

“No, I cannot support that,” says James Pokiak, echoing a sentiment shared by the Dene, who staunchly resist the government’s suggestion they be issued tags and report their harvests, something they aren’t required to do now. They see this as a threat to their constitutionally entrenched aboriginal right to hunt.  But they support reducing the number of caribou my family can take as resident non-aboriginals each year to two, down from five, per adult  – still plenty – and only bulls.

Many aboriginal leaders believe that commercial outfitters, even though they employ local people and donate much of their meat to communities, should have the least harvesting rights, particularly trophy hunters who seek the regal, velvet-covered antlers of large bull leaders. The newly formed Tlicho Dene government has recommended commercial outfitting be eliminated altogether until the herd recovers. When the territorial government reduced outfitter tags to 750 caribou this hunting season, down from 1,260 last year, an American owner spearheaded a class action suit, calling the territorial government’s concerns over a declining Bathurst herd an “environmental hoax” based on miscalculations and poor science.

While many aboriginal hunters are also sceptical of the methods used to count herds – mainly aerial survey photographs of cows and calves at calving grounds – there’s general consensus the numbers are down. Radio and satellite collars that allow biologists to track herd movement and delineate individual herds were strongly opposed by Dene elders when they were introduced in 1996. Elders worried the collars would irritate and ostracize the animals, but mostly they thought it highly disrespectful not to take a caribou that offers itself to you, even if you have to shoot a net and jump out of a helicopter to get it. Today, with the passing of each elder, the repressive legacy of residential schools and the growing pressures on Dene culture, some of that spiritual attachment to caribou is waning.

Where once caribou were revered and used wholly, aboriginal leaders are beginning to acknowledge the shameful, and illegal practice of meat wastage – a crime that knows no ethnic boundaries. I once saw a well-known elder walking along the ice road with a knife, salvaging the hearts and other wasted meat and organs from caribou left on the roadside by irresponsible hunters.

“I grew up with the Dene law and I was told if I’m not respectful to the caribou, something bad will happen to me, but the younger generation does not know that,” says Fred Sangris, chief of the Weledeh Yellowknives Dene. A self-professed “Caribou Dundee,” Sangris heads a committee of chiefs developing a management plan for the Bathurst herd, and supports new public school curricula reintroducing traditional teachings. My three sons, shoulder to shoulder with Dene schoolmates, are taught about caribou ecology, that meat must not be used for personal gain, and that caribou talk to each other over long distances to organize themselves for a long migration.

Sangris wants to organize experienced hunters to follow Bathurst caribou for a year to simply observe and report on their movements and numbers.

That’s been done recently, but not by an aboriginal hunter. In his enlightening book, , biologist Karsten Heuer chronicles five months on foot following the Porcupine Caribou herd to its summer calving grounds in Alaska. Before he sets out, a Gwich’in Dene tells him that when they used to follow the herd, “people could talk to caribou, and caribou could talk to people.”  The comment unravelled its meaning to Heuer only after months of rhythmic movement with the herd. He detected a deep sound which he called thrumming, “some resonance on the edge of human hearing, humming an oscillating song,” that disappeared as quickly as it made itself present to him.

For the vast majority of Canadians who will never see a caribou – unless they look at a quarter – perhaps this is what’s at stake. It is increasingly difficult for anyone to reduce this technologically-crazed existence to the bare-bones of natural harmonies in order to hear, as the Sufi poet Rumi calls it, the “voice that doesn’t use words.” Yet if we believe those voices exist, whether we hear them or not, with each one we let slip away, our world will become that much less of a symphony.



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