Fundamental differences in approaches to wildlife management were made starkly clear on Wednesday in Whati, N.W.T., where Tlicho elders clashed with territorial government officials over management of the Bathurst caribou herd.

Officials from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources were in Whati to discuss the new mobile hunting zone for the herd, which will move based on the location of caribou outfitted with tracking collars. Government officials presented their plan to community elders Wednesday in a closed door meeting.

However, following the presentation, the conversation became heated.

Elders, some speaking in Dogrib, took to the mic and called into question the accuracy of the government's aerial caribou counts, the stress that low-flying survey planes cause the herd, and how the department can track a herd of 35,000 caribou with less than 20 collars.

Some hunters said the restrictions are "confusing," while others admitted to CBC that they may ignore the new rules.

One elder told Bruno Croft, a research and monitoring manager for the government, that his people only harvest the caribou they need, and because of this respect, the caribou will always return — the Creator says so.

Moise Nitsiza

Tlicho elder Moise Nitsiza says the Tlicho need to make a stand for hunting rights before it's too late. (CBC)

Croft responded by saying that times have changed, and that with snowmobiles and high-powered rifles, the caribou have no place to hide.

The exchange highlighted a sharp split between the two factions: one based in science, the other spiritual.

'The caribou can't talk for themselves'

The status of the Bathurst caribou herd has been a contentious issue for years. This summer, Michael Miltenberger, the minister of ENR, said the herd was declining at an "alarming rate," and in December, the government stopped issuing tags to hunters until the mobile hunting protective zone was implemented.

Elder Moise Nitsiza says chiefs in the Tlicho region, where the herd is based, need to make a stand for hunting rights before it's too late.

"They are trying to tell us what to do now," he says. "Pretty soon, they might tell us not to cut trees down, and pretty soon they might tell us not to set the net. We won't be no good if you obey the government. 

"Keep your words strong, for our future." 

Johnny Arrowmaker, the chief of nearby Wekweeti, says that when it comes to caribou management, the Tlicho government needs to work with all affected parties, including the territorial government and elders. Co-operation across borders, he says, will help protect the declining Bathurst herd.

Johnny Arrowmaker

Wekweeti Chief Johnny Arrowmaker believes communication is the key to solving the dispute between elders and the N.W.T. 'The caribou can't talk for themselves,' he says. (CBC)

"This caribou topic has been going on for a while," he says. "It is not something new. But it sounds like, for some reason, the elders still don't understand what's going on... they need to understand what's going on."

Arrowmaker says the Tlicho government will step up their efforts to educate and pass on information about the caribou population to community members, in the hopes of lowering tension and increasing understanding between the territorial government and local elders.

"The caribou can't talk for themselves," he says. "It we go hunting non-stop, and the caribou population goes down really low, it's going to be hard to get it back up."