Author defends endangered designation for Peary caribou
“I believe I did a very good job of including traditional knowledge”
Inuit traditional knowledge was collected in a “fair and balanced way” for the report used to recommend Peary caribou be treated as an endangered species, according to its author.
Lee Harding, a Vancouver-based consultant, said in an interview this week that he was unaware of the controversy about the federal environment minister’s decision to recommend Peary caribou be listed as endangered, under the Species at Risk Act.
Harding did the research for the government advisors who make recommendations to the minister on conservation issues.
Hunters in the High Arctic condemned the minister’s recommendation, saying that their elders’ belief about the caribou populations increasing and decreasing in regular cycles hadn’t been included.
Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. added their strong disapproval to the timing of the decision, threatening to use legal action to stop the listing. They charged that advisors based in the South can’t properly assess the health of Nunavut’s wildlife.
But Harding said he wrote the federal assessment of the Peary caribou, based on both science and Inuit traditional knowledge from throughout the Arctic.
“I believe I did a very good job of including aboriginal traditional knowledge in a fair and balance way,” said Harding, a wildlife biologist who runs SciWrite Environmental Sciences.
“I tried to be as forthright as I could and give equal weight to both views.”
Harding was hired in 2001 by the Canadian Wildlife Service on behalf of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) to write a report based on what he calls “existing” information about the Peary caribou.
COSEWIC is a group of advisors to the federal department of the environment on issues related to species at risk of becoming endangered.
Harding said the committee didn’t give him a mandate to gather new information, from scientific or aboriginal sources. Instead, Harding said he was tasked with “gathering” studies that had already been done, including documents detailing what Inuit and Inuvialuit thought about the population levels of Peary caribou.
Harding’s final report was released by COSEWIC in 2004. He concludes that Peary caribou populations plummeted to 8,000 from the ten of thousands in the past three decades, mainly due to starvation. Most are in the western Arctic, near Banks Island.
Surveys over the past decades show thinning populations exist in the High Arctic near Bathurst Island and Melville Island, after declining by nearly 90 per cent.
Harding didn’t visit Grise Fiord as part of his study, where he says “virtually nothing is known” about the Peary caribou population in area. The last survey in that area was conducted in 1960.
Instead, Harding went to the Resolute Bay in April 2002, and attended a hunters and trappers organization meeting.
“It wasn’t a very vigourous meeting,” he recalled. “They didn’t have anything to say that particularly stood out.”
Harding spent a few days in the community, hiking with his local guide, and meeting with the HTO secretary. At the HTO office, he picked up a poster about caribou made by residents of Resolute, Grise Fiord and Pond Inlet.
Harding said his visit to Resolute prompted him to investigate theories from the communities that Peary caribou migrated from Bathurst Island to Ellesmere Island.
Harding put the migration theory into his report, as well as arguments pointing out that there’s no documentation to support the idea.
“I tried to be as forthright as I could and give equal weight to both views,” he said. “In my view, just because an Inuk says something does or doesn’t happen it doesn’t necessarily make it aboriginal traditional knowledge. If a community hold these truths to be something that they’ve understood and believed for a long time, then that’s a higher standard.”
Harding also travelled to Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Inuvik. Afterwards, he said he gathered Inuit traditional knowledge through six articles in scientific journals. Those articles contained long transcriptions of interviews and other information from Inuit and Inuvialuit elders, published in the 1980s and 1990s.
Harding worked first-hand on measuring the decline of the Peary caribou in 1974, when he was working as a wildlife biologist for the federal government.