The Northwest Territories' top wildlife official says voluntary caribou hunting limits are not working to stem the decline of the Bluenose East caribou.

"We're struggling to control the decline," says Michael Miltenberger, the territory's Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, "...and we're not successful at this point."

The latest numbers show both the Bathurst and the Bluenose East caribou herds have reached alarming lows.

Miltenberger says a voluntary limit of 2,800 animals from the Bluenose East caribou herd has not been successful.

"That number's probably been exceeded by factors of two or three times."

Harvesting from the Bathurst herd has already been limited to just 300 animals, shared between the Tlicho and Yellowknives Dene.

"It's a minimal harvest already," Miltenberger says. "Is there any harvest at all that can be sustained in the short term?"

Technical working group struck

At an emergency meeting called last week, the government has struck a technical working group to come up with a plan to stop the alarming decline in both the Bathurst and Bluenose East caribou herds.

Stakeholders agreed to meet again in October to decide what measures could be implemented before the winter harvest begins in November.

"These are significant red flags," Miltenberger says, adding that these are trends that take a long time to turn around — perhaps decades.

"This is a very, very serious situation."

‘A complicated issue'

Asked what may be causing the decline, Miltenberger listed a host of issues, including climate change, development pressures, invasive species and a rise in predators.

"It's a complicated issue without a single clear answer," Miltenberger says.

He points out that hunting restrictions on the Bathurst herd has also added pressure to the Bluenose East.

On top of all that, he says this year's massive fire season will have to be factored in.

However, Miltenberger points out that the N.W.T. does have caribou herds that aren't suffering.

He says both the Porcupine herds and the Beverly and Ahiak herds are doing well, though the numbers of the latter are dropping as well.

He also points out that devolution has given the N.W.T. government more control over resource development, including monitoring the long-term cumulative impacts of mining.