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Contrasting fates of Nunavut caribou

Chris Windeyer
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Nov 06/06) - Caribou hunters in the high Arctic face the startling possibility of quotas and signs in the Kitikmeot are also troubling, according to a wildlife biologist.
NNSL Photo/graphic

Some caribou populations are declining. Is it due to natural cycles, or human influence? Researchers are trying to find out. - NNSL file photo

The various Kitikmeot caribou herds still number in the hundreds of thousands, but researchers have noticed a precipitous drop in population over the past few years, said Mathieu Dumond, the regional wildlife biologist for the Kitikmeot.

The Bathurst herd, which calves southwest of Bathurst Inlet and migrates into to the Northwest Territories, has dropped from 472,000 animals to 128,000 in a count released by the GNWT in September.

The Bluenose East herd, which occupies an area that surrounds Kugluktuk, dropped from 104,000 in 2000 to 66,200 in a count conducted by Nunavut's Department of Environment this year.

"Some of the herds have reached very, very low numbers and in those cases it's hard to believe that just a natural cycle alone would be responsible for that," Dumond said. "But it's always possible."

The NWT's former environment minister, Michael Miltenberger, mused in September about keeping tabs on the aboriginal hunt to monitor the impact on Bathurst caribou.

Later that same month, Nunavut's Department of Environment raised the prospect of an annual quota on Peary caribou in the high Arctic as their numbers have plummeted to just over 1,000, according to the latest estimates.

While total allowable harvests in the Kitikmeot aren't on the radar screen in the near future, and effects from remote hunting camps are considered minor, officials may have to consider protecting calving grounds by limiting industrial activity near the grounds during calving season.

Over in the Kivalliq region, the picture is entirely different. The Qamanirjuaq and Beverly herds, the two major herds in the area, are hale and hearty according to Mitch Campbell, a biologist with the territorial environment department.

"There's lots of caribou at this end. Certainly (with) Qamanirjuaq caribou there's no concern at all from the GN about the proper harvesting of Qamanirjuaq caribou," Campbell said from his Arviat office.

The Beverly herd straddles the NWT border in northwestern Kivalliq in the area of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary. The Qamanirjuaq herd stretches from the Chesterfield River, south to the Manitoba border.

Firm population figures don't exist for the herds, but they are collared and government scientists await approval of a plan to conduct extensive aerial photo surveys of the two populations during calving season next summer, the first such study since 1994.

Still all signs point to plenty.

"I've flown over caribou as far as the eye can see for 30 minutes," Campbell said.

You don't need to tell Andre Tautu that the caribou are all right.

"There is more and more," the president of the Chesterfield Inlet Hunters and Trappers Association said. "They're increasing. They don't decline, they just go wherever they like and come back."

Campbell said the government spends a lot of time studying ecological conditions of caribou habitat. That has lead to the sighting of one cloud on an otherwise sunny horizon for Kivalliq caribou.

Climate change is causing southern species rarely seen in Nunavut, like moose and white-tailed deer, to extend their range into the southern Kivalliq near the tree line.

That could expose caribou to parasitic brainworm, which is 100 per cent fatal to caribou, and chronic wasting disease, which has ravaged deer populations in northern Saskatchewan. But Campbell emphasizes such threats are a long way off.

Tautu agrees the climate appears to be changing the landscape, but he takes the warnings of scientists with a grain of salt. The caribou, he's confident, will hold fast.

"Scientists and biologists, they tell you what they learn from school," he said, "and up here we tell you what we learn from experience."