The Sahtì Ekwǫ̀ (Bluenose-East caribou) herd may be stabilizing, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
On Thursday, ENR staff and Tammy Steinwand-Deschambeault, the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s director of culture and lands protection, presented the latest population survey results for Sahtì Ekwǫ̀ and Kǫk’èetı Ekwǫ̀ (Bathurst caribou) to the Standing Committee on Economic Development and Environment.
Following a calving ground survey last June and a composition survey last October, the population for Sahtì Ekwǫ̀ is estimated to be 23,200 animals – about 4,000 more than in 2018.
However, this total is still only about 20 per cent the size of the Sahtì Ekwǫ̀ herd from 2010, which counted about 122,000 animals.
“Although conservation concerns still exist, if herd indicators remain positive, the Bluenose-East herd may be on the road to recovery,” said Steinwand-Deschambeault.
As for the Kǫk’èetı Ekwǫ̀ herd, its population continued to drop. It’s down to 6,200 caribou, about 2,000 fewer than in 2018.
Heather Sayine-Crawford, ENR’s director of wildlife and fish, said a challenge with last year’s calving ground survey was the Kǫk’èetı Ekwǫ̀ herd mixing with Beverly caribou. She said some Kǫk’èetı Ekwǫ̀ cows even seemed to join the Beverly herd.
“Due to the unusual movements, we will continue to closely monitor all collared animals and closely follow the Kǫk’èetı Ekwǫ̀ and Beverly cows when they head back to their calving grounds this coming summer,” she said.
Harvesting challenges and alternatives
The mixing of herds also made it difficult for harvesters last year. The Mobile Core Bathurst Caribou Management Zone moves based on the collar location and tries to cover as much of the Kǫk’èetı Ekwǫ̀ herd as possible to prevent harvesting. With the mixing of the herds, it meant a significant number of Beverly caribou were within the no-hunting zone.
ENR increased patrols of the winter road last winter to try and prevent illegal hunting. Despite the efforts, 143 caribou were harvested illegally, 123 of those were within the no-hunting zone.
Both Monfwi MLA Jane Weyallon Armstrong and Deh Cho MLA Ron Bonnetrouge said caribou are a staple for Indigenous communities. Bonnetrouge pointed out that Wekweètì fell within the no-hunting zone and asked how community members were supposed to sustain themselves.
Steinwand-Deschambeault explained the Tłı̨chǫ Government has received funding from the federal government to give to harvesters so they can harvest other traditional foods like moose and fish, “anything other than caribou.”
“Our communities have done really well with that,” she said.
She later added that despite this push towards other food sources, it’s still difficult for communities.
She said one harvester told her, “We can only look out and watch. Our food is there, it’s going by but we can’t harvest. It’s like we’re being banned from our land.”
Despite this, she said harvesters went on a community hunt last year far past the no-hunting zone and chartered an aircraft to bring back the caribou to share with community.
“We are trying to find ways to address the issue where people still have traditional food for themselves,” she said.
Presenters reiterated that a combination of climate change, predators, illegal harvesting and development all contribute to the caribou’s decline.
“(Caribou are) being hit from all these different angles, so when we look at it that way, it’s like they don’t stand a chance,” said Steinwand-Deschambeault. “So we really have to have everybody do their part.”