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The Bluenose-East caribou herd has been closed to hunting for the 2013-2014 season after last summer's survey by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources showed the population is in decline. Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger said there would be no easily-accessible herds for resident hunters in "the foreseeable future." Above, caribou from a herd between Arviat and Baker Lake are pictured in June of 2012. - photo courtesy of Mike Robbins

No Bluenose for resident hunters
Caribou numbers down despite earlier projections showing population increase

Candace Thomson
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Any resident hunters hoping caribou could be found off the winter road this season will be disappointed.

Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger announced Monday the Bluenose-East herd - after the Bathurst herd, the most accessible caribou herd to Yellowknife hunters - will not be open to hunting after all, despite speculation over the last few years that the herd was on the rebound.

A survey of the herd this past summer shows an alarming drop - down to 68,000 animals from 100,000 in 2010. The population was estimated to be 66,200 in 2006.

"We had the (Bluenose-East) herd showing a good sign they were stable and (their numbers) were going to be increasing, but the new numbers tell us it's taken a turn for the worse," said Miltenberger.

The Bluenose-East herd winters primarily in the Tlicho region south of Great Bear Lake, and is sometimes accessible by the winter road connecting the communities of Gameti and Wekweeti with Highway 3 to the south. Last spring, hunters expressed outrage after wasted meat from at least 50 Bluenose-East caribou were found on Hottah Lake, about 90 km northwest of Gameti. The area where the animals were shot is open to an unlimited aboriginal harvest, but resident hunters have not been allowed to hunt Bluenose-East caribou since 2006. The Bathurst herd, which winter north of Yellowknife, have been off-limits to resident hunters since 2010.

Miltenberger said there are likely a few causes for the Bluenose-East decline, but his department couldn't pin them down for certain.

"There are a number of variables. We have some understanding of some of them, but some we don't," he said.

"Weather, nutrition, hunting and the combination of the three are likely the main causes, and maybe there might be other things as well, but those are the three big ones. There is not a lot of development in that area that would impact the herd."

While predators such as wolves and grizzlies can be controlled, according to Miltenberger, factors such as weather and global warming can't. Therefore, the GNWT has to act to protect the herds through conservation and hunting restrictions.

A limited resident harvest of the Beverly and Ahiak barrenground caribou herds, meanwhile, has been approved. Resident hunters can harvest one bull, but the herds are difficult to reach for most hunters, according to Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley.

"With the eastern herds, it's very difficult and expensive to get to them, so it's not reasonable. Maybe five per cent of all resident hunters can get there. Restricting it to one animal for the few hunters that get there is an artificial restriction," Bromley said.

Bromley also said he feels the Bluenose-East survey is inadequate. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources used a combination of a calving-ground and post-calving-ground surveys in 2010 in different months, as weather conditions wouldn't allow them to do a complete single survey. For 2013, only one survey was completed, and Bromley said to draw conclusions from that is wrong.

"We've forgone the opportunity to hunt, which would have been easily supported by herd numbers for three years, and now they've done an inadequate survey which doesn't compare," he said.

"I don't see it as a strong estimate of a decrease in the Bluenose-East herd."

The next population survey won't be until 2015, according to a department news release.

"Delaying a survey until 2015, when it's probably been a poor survey compared to the 2010 one, puts resident hunters on the hook for another three years. It'll be another year for the analysis of that. It's completely unfair," Bromley said.

Restricting the Bathurst herd harvest is understandable, and most hunters want conservation of herds as much as the government does, but the way the restrictions are carried out pit resident hunters against aboriginal subsistence hunters, said Bromley.

"If there are 150 tags available, there should be some nod to resident hunters in a lottery situation, restricted to bulls and one per hunter only - that sort of thing would be supportable," he said.

"We all come from the land and return to the land - it's not that one group does and the other doesn't. Caribou are very important to the diet of some non-aboriginals and most aboriginals. I'd say responsibility for stewardship as pointed out in Wildlife Act is clearly something carried by both aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike, despite authority apparently resting to a larger degree on aboriginal people."

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