NTI threatens lawsuit over caribou decision

Feds accused of ignoring procedures in land claims agreement



Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. is threatening legal action to shut down the federal government’s move towards deeming Peary caribou to be an endangered species.

Leaders of Nunavut’s land claim organization said they were shocked by the federal environment minister’s announcement last week that he was recommending Peary caribou be listed as an endangered species under the Species at Risk Act.

“There were no negotiations about it,” said Raymond Ningeocheak, second-vice-president of NTI.

“And today that is not acceptable anymore because we have agreements that are here to protect us.”

NTI accuses federal environment minister Stéphane Dion of overriding the process set out in the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, which describes how decisions are to be made about managing wildlife in the territory.

Ningeocheak is basing his threat of legal action on article 5.3.3 of the land claim. That article states the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and the minister will only restrict Inuit harvesting rights based on the system set out in the claim. Limits are allowed only for a “valid conservation purpose,” and public health or safety reasons.

Ningeocheak believes Dion made a mistake in basing his decision on a report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

COSEWIC, a group of advisors to the government, released a report last spring that recommended the minister protect the Peary caribou with an endangered species listing. Wildlife surveys done over the past few decades show their populations have plummeted by as much as 90 per cent in some areas, such as the High Arctic.

Scientists say many caribou starved to death after unusual ice storms covered the ground with ice, making it nearly impossible for them to eat.

But hunters in Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay argue the surveys are incomplete. They believe the area is too large to be sufficiently covered by wildlife biologists visiting periodically from the South.

They say the scientists haven’t counted all the caribou that have migrated to more remote areas.

Marco Festa-Bianchet, chair of the COSEWIC committee that produced the report for the minister, said the hunters need to prove their claims if they want to change the outcome of the Peary caribou’s pending designation.

Festa-Bianchet added that Inuit shouldn’t assume their hunting rights will be curtailed by the recommended designation. He said hunters aren’t blamed for the sharp decline in caribou numbers, which will be considered when government and Inuit decide on a management plan for the caribou.

“They have no reason to be concerned,” Festa-Bianchet said. “A SARA [Species at Risk Act] listing doesn’t necessarily mean that all harvest must stop. Whatever consultation one does, one is always told one needs to do more.”

The NWMB, Nunavut’s main wildlife regulator, expected they would have time to meet with hunters from the High Arctic, and compile more information to give to the minister, before he made his decision.

Instead, the NWMB were surprised Dion made the recommendation to the federal cabinet without waiting to hear more from the Inuit.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Harry Flaherty, acting chair of the NWMB. “He just sort of bypassed the board. But hopefully this won’t happen for other species that could come up in the very near future.”

The Canadian Wildlife Service is a federal agency that also advises the minister on conservation issues. They said they met with the NWMB in April after holding consultations on the Peary caribou in the High Arctic communities, Cambridge Bay and Kuglutuk.

“There was extensive effort made to incorporate local and traditional knowledge into the report,” said Trevor Swerdfager, director-general of the CWS.

Swerdfager said more public comment is welcome until mid-June, when the minister makes a final recommendation on the Peary caribou’s status.

Translation by Itee Akavak.

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