Fort McPherson, N.W.T., to host summit on Porcupine caribou herd next week
‘We want to ensure that the herd remains strong and healthy,’ says Gwich'in Tribal Council grand chief
The community of Fort McPherson, N.W.T., will soon be alive with activity.
Dozens of Indigenous leaders, hunters, and concerned residents from across the Beaufort Delta are traveling there next week for a three-day summit centred on the state of the Porcupine caribou herd — and ways to preserve it for future generations.
The Gwich'in Tribal Council is hosting the event, set for Tuesday to Thursday.
According to Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik, it's in response to resolutions passed at the council's general assembly in March 2022, and the Biennial Gwich'in Gathering in Old Crow, Yukon, later that July.
"As Gwich'in, we think of ourselves as caribou people," Kyikavichik said. "In fact, all of our communities across Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories are along the migration route of the Porcupine caribou.
"What we would like to do through this summit is hear from our harvesters, our elders, [and] our leadership about what we're seeing today, and try to arrive at some expectations moving forward of what we can do as nations to come together and celebrate this critical resource, but also…to protect it."
Alongside its own members, the Gwich'in Tribal Council has invited other participants from Alaska, the Yukon, and the Inuvialuit and Sahtu regions in the N.W.T. There also will be representatives of the Gwich'in Council International, Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board, and territorial governments.
In all, Kyikavichik said organizers are expecting anywhere between 80 to 100 people in attendance.
A series of presentations and roundtable discussions exploring the "past, present and future" of the Porcupine herd are on the agenda for those three days, with community feasts and cultural demonstrations in the evenings.
The event is meant to be an opportunity for people to get information and exchange perspectives, Kyikavichik said.
"I'm excited to see what results, from the individuals that attend and some of the voices they bring to the table."
'Our caribou are healthy'
With a range spanning from eastern Alaska to western N.W.T., the Porcupine caribou have supported the livelihood of Gwich'in, Inuit and other northern Indigenous nations for time immemorial. It's why these communities have led a longstanding fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – the herd's calving grounds – from oil and gas development.
Even with that ever-looming threat, the Porcupine herd is perhaps the only Arctic herd that hasn't suffered a dramatic decline over the past decade. In fact, surveys conducted in 2018 reported between 202,000 and 235,000 individual animals, marking a historic high.
Joseph Tetlichi chairs the Porcupine Caribou Management Board, which routinely monitors the caribou using satellite technology and collars. He told CBC that numbers remain steady and the herd is firmly in the "green zone" — more than 115,000 animals, with no harvest limit for Indigenous hunters.
Tetlichi says he looks forward to sharing this good news at next week's summit.
"There's always excitement, because we're giving information to the local people just to put their mind at ease," he said. "Our caribou are healthy and…are going to where they need to go."
Of course, there are concerns that need to be discussed, Tetlichi said. Climate change has caused the herd's traditional migration routes to shift, for instance, creating new challenges for communities when it comes to harvesting.
Kyikavichik also noted growing problems around improper hunting practices. The issue has been well-documented on social media in recent years.
"We do know there's a level of meat wastage and over-harvesting that occurs," Kyikavichik said.
"That is one of the teachings we would like to impart upon participants. Yes, we have rights…to harvest the Porcupine caribou, but associated with that is the responsibility to respect the animals, respect the herd, and ensure that we are undertaking ethical hunting practices," he said.
"We're fortunate that the Porcupine is one of the few healthy barren-ground caribou herds at this time. We want to ensure that the herd remains strong and healthy."