'We use our eyes, our mouth and our hearing': Tlicho elders to monitor Bathurst caribou

A small team of Tlicho hunters and elders is heading to the barren lands for one month to walk with the declining Bathurst Caribou herd and record everything they see.

Herd's population dropped 40% between 2013 and 2015

Moise Rabesca is one of the elders heading to the Barren Lands for one month to walk with the declining Bathurst Caribou herd. (Kate Kyle/CBC)

A quest to understand the astounding decline of the Bathurst caribou herd has a small team of Tlicho hunters and elders heading to the Barren Lands for a month, using traditional knowledge to document the animals they once relied on.

"We use our eyes, our mouths and our hearing," says Moise Rabesca, a Tlicho elder who's part of the eight-member expedition team.

The first of two groups is set to leave for the herd's post-calving grounds near Contwoyto Lake in Nunavut near the N.W.T. border in early July.

They'll use telescopes and stopwatches to document caribou behaviour. The hope is that the elders' traditional knowledge can reveal new information about the troubled herd.

"I'm looking to see if there's food for them out there. Cranberries, blueberries. I want to see the soil and how it's changed. I want to see that with my own eyes."

The group will spend four weeks on the land, living with the animals and documenting what they see. (Melanie Walsh/CBC)

Unexplained decline

Since 1986, the once-prolific herd of 470,000 caribou has plummeted to less than 20,000 in 2015 — a decline of 96 per cent. Another troubling downward trend: the number of breeding cows dropped by half since 2012.

The explanations range from mining, predation, harvesting and climate change to the herd's natural population cycles. Still, no one can say for sure why the herd is dwindling.

Scientists perform surveys of the calving ground every year to observe population trends and do population surveys every few years.   

With a harvesting ban in place, fewer hunters are encountering the caribou on the land.

That's what the Tlicho government wants to change.

Petter Jacobsen says having the elders monitor the caribou will be a unique opportunity. (CBC)
"It's important to compare these two together to preserve caribou in the future for the young people to see," says Rabesca, referring to traditional knowledge and science.

From the base camp, the team plans to hike 10 to 15 kilometres a day following the herd.

"We'll see the caribou, we see the wolves, the grizzly bears, the whole environment," says Petter Jacobsen, the Tlicho Government's traditional knowledge researcher who's part of the team.

"Those elders who have that background and that knowledge, being there, part of the environment and recording it live — I think it can produce a lot of new links, new kinds of relationships of information.

"That hasn't been done before."

'Can't live without caribou'

Elder Michel Louis Rabesca remembers a time when the Bathurst herd ventured near Behchoko during its annual migration.

'Now you don't see a caribou any more,' says elder Michel Louis Rabesca. (Melanie Walsh/CBC)

"I stand right here — there used to be lots of caribou," he said during a recent training session for the trip.

"[I] shot a caribou right where I'm standing. Now you don't see a caribou any more. We're not used to store meat. [We] can't live without caribou."

The dwindling herd is already affecting the youngest generations, he says.

"We use the caribou hide for the drum. We're supposed to be teaching the kids. Right now we don't have no caribou. We don't have caribou hide. How are we supposed to teach the kids about the drum?"


Kate Kyle is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @_kate_kyle