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Questions raised about Bathurst herd

Jason Unrau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 22/06) - The latest count of Bathurst caribou showing a dramatic decline in their numbers has sparked a blame-game among stakeholders.

Ndilo chief Fred Sangris recently blamed outfitters and tourism operators for the declining numbers.

But outfitters such as Gary Jaeb of True North Safaris say the government census failed to get an accurate count.

Last week Jaeb told Yellowknifer he believes that when the first calving ground photo census of the Bathurst herd was done in 1986, officials included caribou belonging to the Beverly and Queen Maud Gulf (now Ahiak) herds. In the latest census, results of which were released in the summer, only Bathurst animals were counted.

The NWT department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) estimates the Beverly and Ahiak herds at 286,000 (1994) and 200,000 (1996) individuals respectively. According to ENR, the Bathurst herd, pegged at 472,000 caribou in 1986, has dropped to 128,000 in 20 years.

Ray Case, senior biologist for ENR, stands by the Bathurst numbers. He said the 1986 survey did not include what's now the Ahiak herd or the Beverly herd.

"We were very intent on ensuring that when we did the count this year we found the full distribution of the Bathurst herd," Case said, adding that the Ahiak and Beverly herds' configurations makes getting a proper inventory challenging.

"We're still having difficulties in finding the best ways to count those herds as they're spread quite widely during calving, nor have we detected any post-calving aggregations, so we are looking at ways that we can get additional information (on those herds)."

Case said some of the confusion among stakeholders may be because each of the three herds' calving grounds - unique to each herd - shift over the years, while during the winter the three groups often merge.

Another theory for the Bathurst herd's decline is a high predation rate by wolves. Boyd Warner, a longtime outfitter, said ENR should encourage hunters to go after wolves, which would reduce their impact on the Bathurst herd and provide a potential business opportunity for trappers.

"Controlling their population should be a vital part of any caribou management plan," he said, adding the tag system for wolves is restrictive.

"Right now you have to get the tags in advance (of seeing a wolf). So if I see one and I don't have a tag, I can't shoot it."

Warner said hunts through his Adventure Northwest company have claimed 22 wolves this year.

Case said predators play a role but "likely smaller than people want to conclude," he said.

"The key thing about wolf ecology is caribou numbers tend to influence wolf abundance, probably to a larger degree than wolf numbers affect caribou numbers," he said. "The relationship between the two is dynamic."

Case said when caribou populations are healthy, wolf populations follow suit. When caribou numbers decrease, as is the case now, wolf populations are likely to suffer as well.