The chief of the Sayisi Dene in Tadoule Lake in northern Manitoba says he's disturbed that people are overhunting the caribou in his community and calls it an 'atrocity.'

Chief Ernie Bussidor has lived in the Tadoule Lake community for 42 years and said he's never seen hunting like this. 

"To see fetuses and discarded caribou hearts and that all over the lake is very disturbing for us," he said.

Normally the caribou harvest happens over a broad area east of Tadoule and into Saskatchewan west of Wollaston, said Daryll Hedman, the regional wildlife manager for Manitoba Conservation.

For some reason the migrating caribou stopped west of Tadoule Lake and haven't gone any further, making the community highly concentrated with caribou, Hedman said. 

It's a treaty right to harvest caribou in the region but Bussidor is worried about the Dene hunters from Saskatchewan and commercial hunters from the south who are making multiple trips.

"That's where it gets very, very troubling for us and that's where the anger comes from the people, to see repeated trips from certain hunters that come here time after time," he said. "Somebody has to protect these animals because that's all we depend on for our existence as people."

An "atrocity"

Bussidor said witnessing this level of caribou harvesting is an atrocity because the federal government resettled the Sayisi Dene from Duck Lake to Churchill in 1956, accusing the community of harvesting too many animals.

Bussidor lived in Churchill for 17 years then ended up with some of his community members at their traditional hunting area at Tadoule Lake.

At the end of March, the Sayisi Dene at Tadoule Lake will vote on a settlement from the federal government. 

"To see the level of hunger by our neighbours to this herd just bothers us because we faced that same accusation once and the government stepped in pretty fast," he said. 

"This is our utopia. This is where we do our harvesting, this is where we set our nets. We live on fish. When there's no caribou around you don't see us hunting in Saskatchewan or wherever."

Caribou population

Hedman is patrolling Tadoule Lake and is still tallying up the number of caribou to make sure the number of caribou hunted is sustainable. 

He said the problem might not be that hunters are killing too many caribou, just that they're taking so many caribou in one area — but the numbers have yet to be counted.

"This may never ever happen again but if it does happen again, what needs to be in place so that there isn't a harvest of these numbers in such a tight area?" asked Hedman. "The first thing we want to do is sit down and see what has to be done."

Derek Nepinak, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, is concerned too many caribou are being hunted.

"Considering the numbers are down considerably, I think significant conservation measures and discussion [have] to happen," Nepinak said. 

People need to keep in mind the importance following custom and tradition when harvesting, he said.

"The caribou is a central feature of the Dene culture and it's a very long standing tradition to do annual hunts in wintertime and we got to bring some respect back to it," he said. 

Nepinak said he'd like to see the Dene nation come together.

"We need to start opening communication lines up again and have open and frank discussions about the impact of climate change on the great herds of caribou and really start planning collaboratively," he said.