The notion that Indigenous harvesters are largely responsible for the drastic and rapid decline of barren ground caribou is unsupported, according to a new study by university researchers.

The mining industry has a much greater impact on barren ground caribou than does Indigenous harvesting, according to a new study released by university researchers.
Robert Berdam photo

The report takes aim at the lack of comprehensive analysis of the mines that operate in the North, particularly the diamond mines in the NWT’s barren lands. That industrial development lies in the migratory path of the Bathurst caribou herd, which is now estimated at as few as 16,000 animals, down from approximately 475,000 in the mid-1980s.

Yet it’s often the activities of Indigenous hunters that seem to be “flagged as a major problem,” said Brenda Parlee, the study’s lead investigator and Canada research chair in resource economics and environmental sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Recent nutritional studies reveal that caribou consumption among Indigenous people today is a fraction of what it was in the past, Parlee noted.

“I think, you know, the overemphasis on harvest management and managing Indigenous harvest is a distraction from what is really a central issue, which is disturbance of the caribou range in the case of the Bathurst and elsewhere,” said Parlee, who began working in the NWT in the early-to-mid 1990s when regulators were assessing the North’s first proposed diamond mines.

For the Bathurst herd, a focus of the study, mining exploration and development has “led to the loss and degradation of key habitat for caribou, thereby exacerbating the decline of the herd. This hypothesis is well supported by a growing body of scientific and traditional knowledge research,” the researchers assert in the report, titled Undermining subsistence: Barren-ground caribou in a “tragedy of open access.”

The “open access” refers to the Canadian government’s policy of allowing Crown lands to be readily claimed by prospectors seeking metals and minerals.

John Sandlos, a co-author of the study and a history professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, expressed concern over environmental assessments for mines being conducted without enough regard for the impacts of additional mines.

“Once you started running roads and power lines and all kinds of other stuff through a undisturbed habitat, you can have broad impacts, particularly on migratory species,” Sandlos said, adding that there are many anecdotal accounts of caribou sustaining leg injuries while crossing these elevated roads.

He also acknowledged the contradictory observations that exist, such as independent research that suggests caribou will generally stay five kilometres away from industrial development and yet he knows people who have visited Agnico Eagle’s Meliadine gold deposit in the Kivalliq and said they saw caribou right on site.

“Even for skeptics and cautious scientists who consider the evidence about the impacts of mining on caribou habitat and population dynamics as incomplete, taking a precautionary approach to limit development, particularly in the Bathurst range, would seem a prudent course of action,” the study states.

The report warns of other pending industrial threats to the Bathurst herd, which ranges over 390,000 square kilometres into the Kitikmeot, due to a proposed all-weather road and deep-water port within their migratory path.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board gets credit in the study for its decision to reject Areva’s proposed Kiggavik uranium mine in the Kivalliq region due to its interference with the Beverly caribou herd’s summer migration.

Parlee said Indigenous oral histories indicate caribou population cycles tend to play out over 40 to 70 years. During low points, communities coped by harvesting other species and sharing resources, she said.

She acknowledged that climate change is also affecting the Bathurst herd but she said some people view climate change as “kind of an abstract thing that we can’t necessarily control,” therefore it’s easier to place blame there than to “make some hard decisions about whether we approve yet another mine in the Bathurst range.”

Reduced hunting since 2009

Larry Adjun, chair of the Kugluktuk HTO, happened to be planning to attend GN-chaired caribou management meetings in Kugluktuk last Thursday and Friday, right after the University of Alberta research paper was released.

“On the Nunavut side we don’t have any mines or winter roads that come past Contwoyto Lake,” Adjun said. “We have more restrictions on caribou compared to the NWT. It doesn’t surprise me that we are not hurting the caribou from the harvesting side because we have low numbers.”
Harvesters in Kugluktuk, Bathurst Inlet and Bay Chimo have been limited to 30 Bathurst caribou tags this year and last year as the management plan has been formulated and finalized, Adjun noted.

Kugluktuk has been proactive in caribou management since 2009 as studies have shown declining herd populations, according to Adjun. He said a local outfitter ceased sports hunts on Bathurst caribou, Bluenose East and Dolphin and Union caribou several years ago.

“And we’ve done the same. We’ve stopped commercial caribou harvests that would provide for the community under the Country Food program,” said Adjun, adding that muskoxen are now being used for that program, which pays hunters through government funding and distributes meat to local residents at no cost.

He added that hunts for grizzly bears and wolves, which are showing healthy populations, no longer require tags, which allows hunters to help keep the number of those caribou predators in check.

– with files from Tim Edwards

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Derek Neary has been reporting on developments in the North for 18 years. When he's not writing for Nunavut News, he's working on Northern News Services' special publications such as Opportunities North,...