GNWT debates what to do about rapid caribou decline

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The territory’s caribou herds have declined by 50 per cent over the past three years.

Despite co-management efforts by the GNWT and Indigenous governments, the Bathurst herd has declined nearly 60 per cent from 20,000 in 2015 to 8,200 in 2018. The Bluenose East herd has seen a 50 per cent decline in three years from 38,600 to 19,300. Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Robert C. McLeod presented these numbers to a standing committee on economic development and the environment January 16.

Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Joe Dragon, who studied caribou as his PhD thesis, says population cycles are a natural evolutionary phenomenon.

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“Unfortunately we haven’t experienced that in our generation, we’ve only seen high levels and now the population is going,” he says. “The typical range is anywhere from 20 to 40 years where you have an increase and then you have a decrease. So looking at this lower cycle, we’re looking at a range here of anywhere from 10 to 20 years.”

In particular, says Dragon, it is important to support the survival of young caribou.

“Do they have good habitat so that when they’re eating, are their fat levels high? So that when they have calves they’re in good condition, so that they have healthy calves.”

Dragon says it is also important to look at what’s taking caribou out of the herd. Scientists are not clear on why the caribou population cycles, so the ministry is looking at areas of threat: harvest, predation, habitat change including development and climate change.

The factors that affect the size of the herd are multiple and complex, Dragon says, and the solutions need to be as well.

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“Unfortunately there are no easy answers and we need to avoid the temptation to look at easy explanations.”

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly points out that most management efforts have been focused on restricting the harvesting of caribou. He wants to see more work on range management.

The minister is next going to meet with Tlicho communities about the government’s findings. A new management action plan needs to be in place by next harvest season, set to begin July 1.

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