Hunting outfitters in the Northwest Territories have filed a lawsuit accusing the territorial government of breaking promises and using shoddy science to shut down their businesses.

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Hunters with a harvested caribou near the Dempster Highway. In a statement of claim filed with the N.W.T. Supreme Court, six hunting outfitters accuse the territorial government of reneging on promises that they would receive a share of the annual caribou hunt. ((CBC))

In a statement of claim filed Monday in the territorial Supreme Court, six outfitters say they were induced to expand their businesses and make investments in the North only to lose them when government officials reneged on promises that they would receive a share of the annual caribou hunt.

"[Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger] made promises to us that weren't fulfilled," said Boyd Warner of Adventure North, one of the six plaintiffs.

The Northwest Territories has lost up to 200 seasonal jobs and the outfitters are out tens of millions of dollars as a result, alleges the statement of claim, which has not been proven in court.

Long-running battle over caribou

Territorial officials were not available for comment.

Monday's lawsuit is the latest front in a long-running battle over caribou management in the North.

Government biologists have said that caribou are in rapid decline, some herds so completely they have virtually collapsed. The outfitters, along with some aboriginal elders, hold that the animals are fine.

Apparent declines, they say, are the result of deliberate manipulation of statistics. They point out that recent surveys of the Porcupine and the Bluenose East herds have both concluded there are tens of thousands more animals than biologists estimated.

"Statistically, the caribou can't go down and can't go up as fast as their numbers are showing," Warner said.

'No good science'

"It's physically impossible. There's no good science here. It's amazing how these herds go up and down at the whim of a government pencil."

A 2009 study by the Alberta Research Council generally endorsed the N.W.T.'s position, but added that it was based on sketchy and inadequate field data.

The statement of claims alleges the six plaintiffs "were induced by the defendant to invest in and/or continue to develop their outfitting businesses in the area."

It notes that government policy favoured the industry and the number of caribou outfitters that were allowed to hunt was increased 36 per cent in 1999.

As a result, the plaintiffs acquired long-term leases from the federal government, built 15 hunting camps, bought equipment and hired staff.

Hunting tags reduced

But in 2006 the government reduced the tags it allotted outfitters to 132 each from 180. The next year, that allotment fell to 83, despite assurances from then-premier Joe Handley that it would remain stable.

Those reductions were accompanied by restrictions, including quotas, on the aboriginal hunt as well — the first time any such measures were used in the N.W.T.

The allotment to outfitters continued to fall every year until it was eliminated on Jan. 1, 2010.

The outfitters previously filed a similar lawsuit, but withdrew it after the government promised they would continue to receive a share of the hunt.

They maintain losing that share amounts to expropriation of their businesses.

Warner said the outfitters can't even get a complete look at the research used to justify the hunting restrictions.

"I equate it to playing poker with somebody when the hand's been called and the guy claims he won but he won't show you his cards."