N.W.T., Nunavut advocates fight for more caribou calving ground protections

As the fall hunting season gets underway, hunters and northern politicians are calling for more protection for barren-ground caribou calving grounds in Nunavut. 

Some herds are losing up to 90 per cent of their population, recent study finds

Barren-ground caribou mostly calve in Nunavut, then migrate to the N.W.T. during the winter. Advocates say these lands need to be protected from oil and gas developments.

Every year, harvesters from Fort Smith, N.W.T., set up camp for a week on the land with the hopes of bringing back lots of caribou meat for their community.

Hunter Earl Evans said the Qamanirjuaq caribou, the most common barren-ground caribou in the region, are above the treeline in an area too far north for them to hunt this year. 

That, coupled with the herd's dwindling numbers, made the community's caribou harvest unfeasible for the first time in 40 years. 

"It's a big blow for the people, you know," Evans told CBC. "Caribou is a main staple for a lot of people here. 

People weren't happy, but there's not much you can do." 

Earl Evans, Chair of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board and traditional hunter, said a community hunt could not be held this year near Fort Smith. That's the first time in 40 years that a harvest wasn't feasible. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Evans, who also chairs the Beverly-Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board, is one of a few northern leaders calling for more protections for critical caribou calving grounds throughout the N.W.T. and Nunavut. The calls come in the wake of a WWF-Canada report that found some herds are losing up to 90 per cent of their peak populations.  

The report says the decline is caused by a number of factors, including climate change and more development projects close to their habitats. 

Barren-ground caribou are considered a threatened species by the N.W.T.'s species at risk committee and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent advisory committee for the federal government. 

Calving grounds mostly 'unprotected' in law 

Calving is the time of the year when caribou give birth. 

The N.W.T. is home to three barren-ground caribou calving grounds in the high Arctic. 

The N.W.T. is home to three caribou calving grounds, highlighted in darker colours on this map. Five other caribou herds calve in Nunavut and migrate to the N.W.T. for the winter months. (GNWT-ENR Yellowknife )

The territory's recent caribou recovery plan, released in April by the Conference of Management Authorities, says calving grounds are "consistently identified" as necessary for barren-ground caribou survival. 

Industrial development like roads, mines or oil and gas projects near key calving grounds, the plan continued, pose a "significant potential threat" to herds because almost all females are in the same area to give birth. 

Still, the plan notes calving grounds "remain mostly unprotected" under the law. 

No projects planned for N.W.T. habitats

In a statement to CBC News, the territory confirmed there are no development projects currently operating or planned for calving areas in the territory.   

Two N.W.T. calving grounds are protected under co-management plans which include "environmental screenings," the statement continues. The third calving ground is part of Tuktut Nogait National Park near Paulatuk, N.W.T.

A national park near Paulatuk, N.W.T. was created to protect the calving grounds of the Bluenose West caribou herd (True North Safaris)

The government says they are working with communities to identify key habitats like water crossings for the Bathurst caribou herd. 

The territory also hosts ongoing meetings with Nunavut leadership to collaborate on how to support threatened barren-ground caribou herds.  

'Protect calving grounds in your own country' 

Five other barren-ground caribou herds calve in Nunavut in the spring, then migrate south to the N.W.T. for the winter months. 

Paul Okalik, WWF-Canada's lead Arctic researcher, told CBC the federal government controls most of the land in the territory, and therefore needs to step up to the plate to protect calving areas from oil and gas developments. 

Paul Okalik, lead Arctic researcher with WWF-Canada, says it's up to the federal government to step in and create calving ground protections on Crown land in Nunavut. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

"[The federal government] has the ability to control the activity taking place on Crown lands," Okalik said. "That's the area where we need to focus some of the work as well." 

Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada's environment and climate change minister, released a statement last week supporting Indigenous groups who oppose a recent move by the United States to open Alaskan caribou calving grounds to energy drilling. 

Why not practice what you preach and protect calving grounds ... in your own country.- Paul Okalik, WWF-Canada's lead Arctic researcher  

Now, Okalik said it's time for them to do the same in Canada. 

"Why not practice what you preach and protect calving grounds ... in your own country," he said. 

CBC reached out to the Department of Environment and Climate Change for more information but did not receive a reply.  

Pandemic a 'good time' to test out protections

Kevin O'Reilly, a N.W.T. MLA, says it's a good time to test out temporary protections in Nunavut, like short-term shutdowns for companies close to caribou habitats during the calving season. 

Man in dress shirt and moose hide vest looks at camera.
Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, says it would be a good idea to put temporary protection measures in place for caribou calving grounds during the pandemic because all types of projects have been slowed down. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

"Now's a good time because the level of [industrial] activity out there is pretty low given COVID[-19]," O'Reilly said. 

Work is also being done in Nunavut at the territorial level, Okalik said. 

The 2016 draft of Nunavut's land use plan designates core calving areas and caribou ice crossings as protected areas. The plan is still undergoing revision. 

CBC has asked the Nunavut government for an update on the territory's land use plan but did not hear back.