Indigenous families reliant on caribou in the NWT for sustenance have suffered mightily over the last decade as once plentiful barren ground herds have plummeted precipitously throughout their range.
The Bathurst herd, which numbered around 470,000 caribou in the mid-1980s are now down to a startlingly low 8,200 animals. The Bluenose East herd has gone from 104,00 caribou in 2000 to 19,000 in 2018.
If the situation seems precarious, that’s because it is. Environment Minister Robert C. McLeod referred to declining herd counts as “deadly serious” during a news conference on Nov. 20, while suggesting that if the NWT can’t get a handle on the decline the federal government might step in with emergency protection measures under the Species at Risk Act.
What’s causing the decline remains a bit of a mystery, although it is general assumed humans have played a significant role in the falling numbers, whether through environmental disturbances from mining and road construction or more broadly, the effects from climate change that have left the North more susceptible to drought and forest fires.
Last month, the Dene Nation identified a new potential threat: chronic wasting disease. The disease, which can be transmitted through animal-to-animal contact or by contact with infected matter, such as saliva, urine, feces or carcasses, is a fatal neurological illness found in North American members of the deer family, which include moose and caribou.
While cases have not been reported in the NWT, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), diseased animals have been found south of the 60th parallel, and hence the concern. Caribou and deer don’t typically intermingle in the NWT but they do in Northern B.C. where there are both deer and woodland caribou.
And even though deer sightings where caribou roam in the NWT are rare, there was at least one confirmed report in 2007 when hunter James Sangris bagged a doe white-tailed deer at Wool Bay, Great Slave Lake, near the community of Dettah where caribou is an important food staple.
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya is calling on the GNWT and federal government to protect NWT populations of caribou and moose from the disease.
As climate change sets in, the likelihood of more in-migrations of southern deer, and with them chronic wasting disease, grows more likely. ENR says it is working with communities and wildlife managers to report the disease, and points to new wildlife regulations that will prevent the importation of live deer or deer parts from areas where the disease is known to occur.
But education is key too. The GNWT needs the eyes and ears of hunters in the territory to keep tabs on the disease. To that end, the government must develop an information campaign that educates people on what signs to look for when encountering wildlife.
Given the already vulnerable condition of barren ground caribou there is no time to waste. This is a priority, so sound the alarm!