'Peary caribou is going to be gone? No way.'

Hunter disputes caribou 'experts'


RESOLUTE BAY – Simon Idlout, 61, can think of one reason why he would stop hunting Peary caribou – and it's not the possibility of the stocky animals being protected under Canada's Species At Risk Act.

"I will stop only when I'm in the ground," he says, chuckling inside his home.

Idlout shot his first Peary caribou when he was so young he couldn't pull the bolt back on his .22 rifle with his tiny hands, so his father tied on a tether rope, which Idlout would yank with his teeth.

There were more caribou then. In the 1970s, scientists estimated there were about 50,000 Peary caribou roaming the islands of the High Arctic. Current counts suggest that number has dropped to about 8,000, and federal scientists fear the animals may one day disappear.

Idlout and other hunters dispute the current counts as being too low. He says he sees lots of caribou, and can't believe the animals could be near extinction.

"Peary caribou is going to be gone? No way," Idlout says.

He points out Peary caribou naturally follow boom-and-bust cycles. He's seen the animals decline and rebound three times in his lifetime, and he's certain that the caribou will bounce back once more.

But Peary caribou face a new challenge today: climate change.

Freezing rain now falls more frequently than it did, and it coats the tundra with ice, which Peary caribou have trouble breaking through. Unable to eat, Peary caribou in recent years have starved.

Idlout offers a number of reasons why he and federal researchers don't see eye-to-eye.

He says the government's helicopter surveys, conducted every few summers, are unable to keep up with the caribou's migrations to different islands in the High Arctic.

Idlout says that means the government is working with old information when they propose hunting restrictions on one island, which may not have had many caribou a few years ago, but is teeming with them today.

He also says government scientists don't pay due attention to other animals. When muskox populations peak, Idlout says they displace Peary caribou. "Peary caribou don't like the smell of muskox," he says.

And there's another predator of Peary caribou, other than Inuit: wolves. "The government had better understand that," Idlout says.

Idlout says he and other hunters shoot wolves to protect Peary caribou, and if the government wants to help, he offers with a grin that he "would be happy to use a helicopter."

"The wolves have really good fur," he adds. "It's warm."

Idlout admits he has trouble taking white scientists from the South seriously. He says having them explain to him the behavior of Peary caribou makes as much sense as him giving a lecture on trees from Resolute, so far above the tree-line.

"I'm the expert," he says.

So, after five years of negotiations between Resolute's hunters and Nunavut's Department of the Environment, there's still no agreement over how to manage the hunt of Peary caribou.

No surprise, given that one side believes Peary caribou are disappearing, and the other side sees them continuing to thrive.

But such an agreement will need to be struck, if the federal government stays its course and makes Peary caribou an endangered species under the Species At Risk Act.

The environment minister, John Baird, made it clear he plans to do as much, in a letter he wrote to the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board in May.

But it's a long, complicated process before Peary caribou are actually listed as endangered. Different public consultations will likely be held over the next year before an official designation would be given to the species.

Idlout and other Inuit hunters would prefer to self-regulate the hunt, as they have done in the past.

From 1986 to 1996, the Resolute Hunters and Trappers Association imposed a voluntary ban on hunting Peary caribou at the southern end of Ellesmere Island.

And in 1994, the Resolute HTA received international recognition for their Peary caribou population management system from the Wildlife Society, a group of biologists and wildlife management experts. They remain the only Canadian, and aboriginal, group to receive the designation.

Idlout would talk longer with a visiting reporter this afternoon, but he needs to prepare dinner. He's helping feed his family, and some 50 other residents, who will meet in the community gymnasium.

"We're having stew tonight," he explains. "Caribou."

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