Fort Good Hope starts up mini-meat plant to process muskox
Trailer will employ community members, offer country food at low prices
Muskox are "just everywhere" in the Sahtu, said Daniel Jackson, the president of Fort Good Hope's renewable resource council. So much so, they're becoming a nuisance.
Last week, muskox crowded the community's airport runway, and not for the first time.
But for a community filled with hunters and surrounded by slow-moving, cow-like targets, Fort Good Hope's residents eat remarkably little muskox meat.
That may be about to change, thanks to a mini-meat plant the renewable resource council says is ready for business.
First given to the community in 2016, it's a simple trailer on the outside, filled with the kitchen equipment necessary to turn a muskox into delicious sausages and hamburgers.
For years, it sat idle. But when officers from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources dispatched the latest bunch of muskox to endanger the community's air traffic, Jackson said they "didn't want the [meat] to go to waste."
Chris Pereira, the renewable resource council's program manager, suggested they finally get the plant up and running.
"We got the meat in, we did the cutting, and we processed the meat into hamburgers and sausages and distributed it to the community," he said.
It was such a success, the plan is for the council to run the plant full-time, offering a "cut-and-dress" service to process harvesters' meat, fish, and berries at cost.
The trailer will provide full-time work for two people, plus more on a casual basis. And that's not all.
"Our plan is to hire people to go out fishing and hunting and bring the meat back to the processing unit," said Pereira. That meat will be sold at cost to community members who may not be able to hunt themselves.
"Everybody's saying that if they have access to local meat, they'd prefer that," Pereira said. "We're not planning to make a profit."
Muskox on the rise, but local appetite is limited
One major use of the facility will be processing muskox, which can be tricky for even skilled hunters.
"There is very little stomach, for lack of a better word, for muskox," said Kevin Chan, the Sahtu regional biologist for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
"It's a lot of work to process a muskox once you've harvested one, because of all the hair," he said.
Muskox meat gets "extremely tough" when the animal is stressed before it dies, and requires hanging for 14 to 28 days, the department wrote in an email.
Catch them near rutting season, Chan said, and they can also be "very smelly."
"It's a very strong and unpleasant smell," he said.
Still, Muskox were once a favourite of hunters — so much so, they were badly overhunted. A total ban on harvesting muskox was put in place in the 1930s, and today, non-Indigenous hunters in the Sahtu must apply for a tag to hunt one.
Now, their population around the world is surging. In Fort Good Hope, muskox are practically an "invasive species," said Jackson, the council president.
Chan said an estimate produced last year showed the population has increased as much as three to four times since 1997, and their range is expanding south of the treeline.
"[It's] something that is very unusual to see," he said.
Meanwhile, barren-ground caribou, the staple food in the region, is rapidly declining in number. That's led some leaders to call for more "alternative harvest," to allow caribou a chance to recover.
"We're hoping that muskox harvest will increase … now that we have these issues with barren-ground caribou," said Chan.
It's not just the meat that's valuable. The territory's Mackenzie Valley Genuine Fur Program pays upward of $200 for a muskox hide.
There's some resistance to eating muskox meat in the Sahtu, said Jackson, where some believe the animals are damaging the health of the caribou herd. But for many, it may just be a matter of unfamiliarity.
"It's really good in some [seasons], but we're not used to it," he said. "So we gotta figure out when is the best eating."
Jackson himself is already converted.
"I tried muskox steak," he said. "I didn't see a difference from muskox to moose."