Peary caribou migrating towards endangered species list
Hunters in Resolute, Grise dispute scientific findings
High Arctic hunters are scrambling to protect their traditional hunt of Peary caribou, as the federal government reviews a report demanding the animals be saved from potential extinction.
Hunting and climate change are threatening this subspecies of caribou, known to travel in small herds across Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
Government data shows Peary caribou numbers have plummeted in the past four decades. In the 1960s, researchers counted tens of thousands of Peary caribou foraging throughout the region.
Now, scientists estimate fewer than 8,000 remain, which prompted COSEWIC to recommend last year that the federal government list the Peary caribou as endangered.
COSEWIC’s recommendation will go to the federal environment minister, who will consult with various groups, including aboriginal organizations, before deciding whether to add the caribou to the Species at Risk Act.
If hunters’ concerns don’t reach the minister through consultations, he’s left to accept the information given by COSEWIC. In the case of the Peary caribou, that would likely mean hunting would be restricted.
Hunters dispute findings
Many hunters in Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay argue that Peary caribou are merely experiencing a regular drop in population numbers, not a fatal plunge.
“Some years are good, some years are not,” said Marty Kuluguqtuq, secretary-treasurer for the Iviq Hunters and Trappers Organization in Grise Fiord. “There’s a cycle, and the old-timers up here have known that for years.
“We feel it’s our right to continue to harvest them. We’ve got no alternative for our livelihood, our food and our well-being.”
Elders in Resolute Bay say the drop in numbers actually means there are more caribou. They say the overpopulation causes the herds to disperse in search of more food.
In turn, the Resolute Bay Hunters and Trappers Association condemned the COSEWIC report in a recent letter, accusing the scientists of ignoring Inuit Qaujimajaituqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge).
They wrote to the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board last month in hopes that the board can influence the federal minister’s decision about how to react to COSEWIC’s findings.
Isaac Kalluk, chair of Resolute’s HTA, questions COSEWIC’s research methods because they’re based on the observations of someone who came to the community from the South, for less than a summer month.
“[We] know our wildlife and ice condition more than people who are here for two or three weeks,” Kalluk wrote. “We harvest, travel and hunt in this area year-round and know our wildlife and ice conditions.”
Numbers have dropped
Peary caribou herds are split into several groups, including the High Arctic, around Bathurst Island and the so-called Low Arctic, around the Boothia Peninsula, north of Taloyoak. The population levels are lowest in the High Arctic, where scientists estimate only a few hundred caribou remain from a population estimated to be close to 3,500 in the 1960s.
Peary caribou numbers have also taken a nose dive on Banks Island, in the western Arctic. Caribou numbers fell below 2,000, from 12,000 in the mid-1970s.
COSEWIC’s 2004 assessment report on the Peary caribou suggests increased amounts of freezing rain in the High Arctic is preventing the caribou from finding enough moss and lichen to eat.
The report also says there could have been too much hunting during harsh winters when the caribou are weak.
Data is incomplete
COSEWIC officials admit that data on Peary caribou is limited.
They say it was difficult to gather information on the caribou because their habitat area is so large, and they have to guess what happened during the “long gaps” between population surveys from 1961 to 1997.
But Marco Festa-Bianchet, the committee’s chair, said they have enough information, including aboriginal traditional knowledge, to label the Peary caribou as “endangered.”
“There is no question that there’s been a catastrophic decline in numbers,” Festa-Bianchet said in a phone interview this week from Sherbrooke, Que.
Festa-Bianchet said he’s willing to re-do the assessment, if communities can offer relevant evidence that’s missing in their reports.
“People can always complain they weren’t consulted enough,” he said. “If it’s just the attitude, ‘whatever you do is wrong, because we’ve been here longer,’ then I’m just not going to accept it. Tell us what it is that we missed, and then we can talk.”
Resolute Bay agreed in the 1980s to curtail their hunting of the Peary caribou. But the community, along with Grise Fiord, has failed to settle on a community-based Peary caribou management plan with the government of Nunavut for years.
The two sides are arguing over the government’s request to survey the caribou using tracking collars, an idea rejected by the hunters.
“We’ve basically got the gun pointed towards our head at the community level,” said Kuluguqtuq from Grise Fiord. “They’re saying ‘if you don’t do it, we’re going to do it anyways.””
The GN’s department of the environment limited their response to this article to a two-line email:
“The Peary Caribou Management Plans have been developed in consultation with the Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay Hunters & Trappers’ Organizations” the email read. “These Management Plans have been forwarded to the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board for review and consideration.”
The NWMB will hold its consultation with High Arctic hunters about the Peary caribou in early June in Iqaluit. Cabinet then has nine months to make a final decision.
After the federal environment minister has all the information, cabinet has nine months to make a final decision.