Feds back off on Peary caribou listing

“It’s good news for us, to get fully acknowledged.”



The federal government, acknowledging it didn’t follow the process spelled out in the Nunavut land claims agreement, has reversed its decision to declare Peary caribou an endangered species.

Nunavut’s land claims negotiator hailed the reversal, but the author of a report suggesting animal populations have dramatically declined and need protection calls it a “sad day” for wildlife.

Environment Minister Stéphane Dion recommended this past May that Peary caribou be protected under the Species at Risk Act.

This announcement outraged hunters in the High Arctic, as well as the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., who threatened to sue the federal government for ignoring the consultation process spelled out in the Nunavut land claims agreement.

According to Article Five of the agreement, the federal environment minister must ask the wildlife board for recommendations before making any decision that could restrict or limit hunting.

“It’s good news for us, to get fully acknowledged,” said NTI President Paul Kaludjak. He says that for the meantime, the threat of legal action has been dropped. “Sometimes we have to say that to state our case. That says we’re serious.”

Population levels of the stocky animals, which roam in herds scattered across the High Arctic islands, have declined dramatically over the last three decades, according to a report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Population estimates conducted during the 1970s pegged Peary caribou numbers at 50,000. Current counts suggest about 8,000 exist today, although Inuit hunters have disputed these numbers as incomplete.

Dr. Marco Festa-Bianchet, who conducted the assessment for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, says he’s concerned politics has trumped environmental protection.

“It’s a sad day when conservation of caribou in Canada is being handled by lawyers, and that’s what we’re seeing,” he said.

A final decision on whether Peary caribou will be classified as endangered has yet to be made. The wildlife board forwarded its own recomendations during the first week of July to the environment minister, who has 60 days to accept or reject their proposal.

Until he makes his response, those suggestions remain confidential. More negotiations could follow, but the decision ultimately rests with the federal government.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” said Joe Tigullaraq, the board’s chief executive officer.

Unlike most endangered species designations, the decline in Peary caribou populations isn’t being blamed on overhunting or habitat encroachment. Instead, global warming is the culprit, federal researchers suggest.

Unusually warm weather in recent years has led to an increase in freezing rain, which coats the tundra with a layer of ice. Unable to break through this surface to eat the vegetation beneath, large numbers of Peary caribou have starved.

Peary caribou populations have plunged to extremely low numbers in some areas, like the East Queen Elizabeth Islands and Prince of Wales Island, where Festa-Bianchet said they could disappear completely if care isn’t taken.

“When you’re talking about these small numbers, you have to be very careful.”

In the past, the hunters and trappers associations of Resolute and Grise Fiord have voluntarily limited their harvest of Peary caribou, and they prefer to keep that control in local hands.

In 1994, the Resolute Hunters and Trappers Association 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.

Hunters say population declines match natural boom-and-bust cycles described by Inuit elders. While scientific population counts have only been conducted for several decades, these cycles sometimes span longer periods.

Hunters and federal scientists also remain divided on the use of radio collars to track the animals.

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