After the NWT posted dismal numbers for the 2018 caribou count, the territorial government is planning to limit disturbance of caribou habitat to save shrinking Bathurst and Boreal caribou herds.
While the GNWT forms management agreements with Indigenous governments and co-management partners, MLA Kevin O’Reilly worries it will be too little, too late.
“My concern is that by the time we actually get a joint management proposal together, submit it to the Wek’eezhii Renewable Resources Board (WRRB) and other folks, there may not be a (Bathurst) herd left,” said O’Reilly at a Dec. 7 committee meeting.
Regional range plans for Boreal caribou are expected between 2019 and 2022, starting in the southern NWT and Wek’eezhii regions, following by the Sahtu, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit regions.
Since 2015, the Bathurst herd has halved from 20,000 animals to 8,200. The GNWT will finalize its Bathurst caribou plan in early 2019.
“There is an expectation from Indigenous governments and our co-management partners that we take actions beyond restricting harvest,” said Dr. Brett Elkin, director of wildlife. “Harvest of the Bathurst herd is currently set at zero.”
“Some people believe the disturbance thresholds are too high … others believe that they are too low and the entire range should be declared in the green,” he said.
The department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) must submit the Bathurst Range plans to the Wek’eezkhi Renewable Resources Board (WRRB) under the terms of the Tlicho Agreement.
In 2015, the department approached the WRRB proactively and they are confident that the department has sufficient funding to complete a fulsome consultation, said ENR Deputy Minister Joe Dragon.
The GNWT will also meet with its partners in Nunavut to discuss the summer ranges to ensure the preservation of the Bathurst herd, which summers and calves in Nunavut.
Several MLAs, including Kevin O’Reilly, Shane Thompson and Daniel McNeely pushed for urgent management, not limited to suppressing wolf populations.
“This is a crisis. Now is the time where wolves can and should be taken if we want to save the herd. That needs to be part of the management proposal,” said O’Reilly.
People have asked for wolf management for years and “it hasn’t been done,” he said.
ENR won’t rule out wolf management as part of its multifaceted plans to protect caribou.
The Bathurst caribou range plan will manage cumulative effects on the caribou’s range, considering significant water crossings, land bridges and calving areas. It could limit human activities that will disturb caribou when they are nearby, he said.
Nunakput MLA Herb Nakimayak pointed to practices in Tuktut Nogait National Park, east of Paulatuk, where there are no-fly rules around calving herds – something the NWT could consider to cut stress on caribou, he said.
“If you lose one animal, you lose two. The spring-time might be a time where there’s no flying and no activity,” said Nakimayak.
Caribou populations in Alberta and Saskatchewan have dwindled to near extinction and those provinces are penning maternal caribou to attempt to restore their numbers.
Forty or 50 years from now, the territory could find itself doing more hands-on management with corralling fences, which take years to build, said Nakimayak.
“That might be us one day,” said Nakimayak, adding that such infrastructure is expensive.
Including Indigenous and traditional knowledge and early consultation along the Mackenzie will be vital to the process, said Nakimayak.
The department will sort out its plans for the southern regions first, starting in the southern NWT and Wek’eezhii areas before completing the Sahtu, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit plans.
Nakimayak urged early planning with co-management groups along the Mackenzie Valley, “otherwise, we’ll have systems clashing together,” he said.
O’Reilly challenged a shrinking fund for monitoring work, with the Tlicho All-Season Road and a subsequent increase in monitoring obligations on the horizon.
Cutting $150,000 in funding for Boreal caribou monitoring while the GNWT’s monitoring obligations are increasing “just doesn’t wash.”
The individual plans will be more detailed, but O’Reilly worries about the inclusion of development as a stated goal in the plan.
“These plans are not about promoting or supporting economic development. They are about saving caribou,” said O’Reilly.
Sustained economic development and caribou populations are “imperative,” said Dragon.
“We have to recognize that development will possibly happen,” he said. “How do we look at whether or not we mitigate opportunities or adapt to economic development in the territory?”
The southern NWT is already considered a high risk threshold, meaning the level of human disturbance puts the region at a high risk of exceeding long-term disturbance limits.
The territorial government is working on its own made-in-the-North framework to avoid the federal government “swooping in,” should the GNWT fail to meet its obligations under the Species At Risk Act.