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Bathurst caribou conservation plan leaves questions unanswered

The chiefs of Whati and Dettah both say good communication will be key to the success of a proposed plan by the N.W.T. government to create a protective zone around the core of the dwindling Bathurst caribou herd, but there are still questions about how it will work.

'It's a good idea, but it will only work if they have manpower behind it,' says Whati chief

The idea of protecting the Bathurst caribou herd by creating a mobile core conservation zone is being met with tentative approval from N.W.T. aboriginal groups.

But questions remain about the logistics of the plan proposed last week by the Northwest Territories government.

According to the plan, no hunting of Bathurst caribou would be allowed inside the protective zone, an area Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger calls "a mere fraction" of the Bathurst herd's overall winter range. The zone, Miltenberger says, would allow for hunting of Bluenose-east and Beverly caribou inside the larger Bathurst range.  

The protective zone will be determined by the location of more than a dozen collared Bathurst cows tracked by the government via satellite. The government believes the core of the Bathurst herd remains tightly grouped around these cows.

"It's a good idea, but it will only work if they have manpower behind it," Whati Chief Alfonz Nitsiza says of the protective zone.

Whati currently does not have a wildlife officer, which is one reason Nitsiza worries about the efficacy of the government's proposed plan.

"That requires a lot of work, a lot of monitoring. It has to be watched almost on a daily or weekly basis of the movement of the caribou."

"I think this idea of a core conservation is doable," echoes Yellowknives Dene Chief Ed Sangris. "But it takes a lot of communication on both sides."

Miltenberger says the location of the herd's core will be shared with aboriginal groups on a weekly basis. He says the department of Environment and Natural Resources can print off maps showing the animals' location on a daily basis if it wants to.

Until the protective zone is in place — which the territorial government wants to see happen by early January — the territorial government will not issue any Bathurst tags to Tlicho and Yellowknives Dene hunters. Each group had been receiving 150 Bathurst tags apiece, per winter, up until now. 

Unanswered questions

Some uncertainties about the protective zone and the territorial government's overall caribou management plan remain, however.

1. Will tags be issued to aboriginal hunters again so that they can hunt Bathurst caribou located outside the Bathurst protective zone? 

This remains unclear. Miltenberger has described the no-tags order as an "interim" step taken until the holiday season passes and talks with aboriginal groups can resume as early as Jan. 5. But on the other hand, he says, "The Bathurst herd cannot sustain any harvest." 

​​Though the Yellowknives Dene have campaigned for a least a reduced number of tags (from 150), Sangris is not confident the tags will come back. "We're trying to keep the numbers," he says. "But by all indications, that wouldn't be the case."

2. How long would the protective zone be in place for?

That's hard to say, according to Miltenberger. A near-complete ban on hunting Bathurst caribou was not put in place until 2010. Today, the herd numbers 15,000 or less, according to the territorial government.

"To reverse that trend is going to take some considerable amount of time," says Miltenberger. "So we'll protect the herd for as long as is necessary — to when the numbers are healthy enough to sustain a harvest again."

3. What about the Bluenose-East caribou herd?

In a press release issued last week, the territorial government said a Nunavut-N.W.T. advisory committee has recommended a target of 1,800 Bluenose-East caribou per year for N.W.T. harvesters. But Miltenberger says the territorial government would prefer a target of 1,500 for the 2014-15 hunting season, though he adds that that number won't be decided until the January talks.   

If the Bluenose-East herd experiences a rapid decline, "the GNWT will pursue options for further limiting the harvest," according to the press release. 

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