Illegal hunting of caribou herds along winter roads running rampant

“It happens year after year, but in my 50 years observing this type of activity, this is the worst I’ve seen," said Earl Evans, the chair of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board.

Enforcement and harvest monitoring efforts have been inadequate, says chair of caribou management board

Environment Minister Shane Thompson (left), wildlife officer Lee Mandeville, and Earl Evans, chair of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board, spoke at a press conference Tuesday about a spike in illegal hunting along the territory's winter roads. (Government of Northwest Territories)

Along the winter road to N.W.T.'s diamond mines, hunters are irresponsibly and illegally harvesting from vulnerable caribou herds at a rate unseen for decades, according to the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board (BQCMB).

Earl Evans, chair of the BQCMB, raised alarm about the extent of unsustainable harvesting in a press release Monday and highlighted how it could impact the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou herds, along with the communities that depend on them. 

Evans has been hunting and trapping on the land for over 55 years and said over this past hunting season, he has seen "every regulation in the book being violated — snowmobiles chasing caribou, people shooting into the herds, hunters using the wrong calibre of rifle required to make a clean kill and/or not retrieving their kills, pollution, and outright dangerous hunting."

A press conference was held Tuesday about the ongoing caribou hunting season and continuing issues along the ice road with disrespectful and illegal harvesting practices. 

During the press conference, Environment Minister Shane Thompson said that they are currently investigating the illegal harvest of over 50 caribou so far this winter, compared to less than 10 at this point last year. 

"When I talk to elders and leaders, there are real fears that these practices will push us towards a future no one wants to see — one where caribou aren't there, one where their children won't be able to bring meat home for their kids," Thompson said.

"The solution, elders and leaders tell me, is rooted in respectful harvesting practices."

Irresponsible hunting at worst in 50 years: chair

Evans said there is an onslaught of hunters pouring in from the winter ice road that are hunting unsafely and wasting valuable caribou meat.

"It seems like the people who are causing these infractions don't realize the value of these caribou ... as a resource to their own people. These caribou here are food for the people, culture for the people. The people thrive on the caribou," Evans told CBC.

The winter road allows easy access to a vast area, difficult to be monitored by a limited amount of conservation officers, creating a "situation in which enforcement and harvest monitoring efforts are inadequate," the press release reads. Large numbers of hunters are descending into the area. 

As caribou appear plentiful and easily accessible to inexperienced hunters, respectful hunting practices tend to decrease. 

"It happens year after year," Evans said in a press release. "But in my 50 years observing this type of activity, this is the worst I've seen."

"When caribou are around, the people are alive. There's life in the community.... But without caribou, boy I tell you, it's dead. Caribou is life for the people… and [poachers] don't realize that," Evans told CBC.

Caribou in the Qamanirjuaq herd. The management board that protects the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds is warning that illegal hunting along the N.W.T.'s ice roads has reached an unsustainable peak this winter. (Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board)

Evans said killing caribou is a necessary part of hunting and providing for your family and community, but what he saw recently was wastage and disrespect.

Evans said that while skidooing near a diamond mine, he saw caribou that were shot and abandoned with little to no meat taken.

The BQCMB is a co-­management board established in 1982 to protect two herds of barren‐ground caribou. The Beverly and Qamanirjuaq herds' winter ranges extend into three provinces and two territories, and Dene, Inuit, Métis, and Cree communities depended on the herds for food. 

"People need to understand that the only way for the caribou harvest to be sustainable is to hunt respectfully," Evans says in the release. "We all share in this responsibility to make sure there are caribou for the next generation."

Communities have been built strategically around caribou cycles and losing them would be "devastating to these communities," said Evans.

 "If it's gone forever, what are the people going to do? It will change people's lives forever, in a way that's never been done before. People will be lost," he said.

ENR taking illegal harvests 'very seriously,' says minister 

Thompson reaffirmed that the government of the Northwest Territories is taking action to prevent the irresponsible and wasteful harvesting of caribou. Thompson said "even though most are doing the right thing, there are others who are making the wrong choices."

The department of Environment and Natural Resources is ramping up enforcement along the winter road, increasing trucks, skidoos, and helicopters. 

"We are seriously looking into reports of illegal meat sales online and in communities," Thompson added. 

A map showing the ranges and calving grounds of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq caribou from 1993 to 2012. (Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board)

A key part of sustaining the caribou population, Thompson said, is supporting community leaders and elders as they promote traditional knowledge and practices.

Wildlife officer Lee Mandeville said that he's always wanted the job he has now, so he could do his part in helping conserve the animals for future generations that he had the privilege of hunting when he was younger. 

He said he is grateful to work with experienced hunters, knowledge holders, and elders, like Earl Evans, to help protect caribou. 

Mandeville said he was deeply saddened by the "cruel acts of leaving live wounded caribou on the land," or leaving their bodies to decay. 

He said that they've delivered numerous charges over the winter, with some fines reaching as high as $30,000. Numerous people have been charged for hunting within the protected Bathurst range, along with hunting while inebriated.

'Doomed to repeat history' if action is not taken

In a 2018 report on the Beverly caribou herd, Evans noted how the population of the nearby Bathurst caribou herd declined 96 per cent over the past 30 years. He said the Beverly herd needs greater protection from unsustainable hunting, or they could face a similar fate. 

"If you don't learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it," Evans said. "Now is the time for the Board to really ramp up its educational messages that caribou herds may not last forever unless people do everything they can to help caribou now."

Hunting season peaks in March, so Evans said it is essential to create more awareness and educate hunters now, and protect the caribou herds from further population decline. 

"If you see an animal, utilize it to make sure you bring every single thing back. And if you don't want to use it, somebody else can," said Evans.

"There's a lot of people out there that you can just go donate to, and this distribution is brought back, so you feel good about your hunt when you get home," he said.

Evans said the majority of the hunters are acting respectfully, but those who aren't put other hunters, communities, and caribou herds at risk.

"I feel bad for the hunters out there that hunt responsibly and are in the same area where this is happening," Evans said.