After 8 years, harvest for Mackenzie wood bison could reopen

The Northwest Territories government wants to reopen harvest of the Mackenzie wood bison population.

'We think it's healthy enough at this point,' says bison ecologist with the territory

Bison on Highway 3 in the N.W.T. in August. The territory is hoping to reopen Mackenzie wood bison harvest as early as fall. (Katherine Barton/CBC)

The Northwest Territories government wants to reopen harvest of the Mackenzie wood bison population.

In a proposal posted on the Wek'éezhìi Renewable Resources Board (WRRB) website, it says the population has recovered since 2012, when an anthrax outbreak killed hundreds of bison.

"We think it's healthy enough at this point," said Terry Armstrong, a bison ecologist with the N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The WRRB is a wildlife co-management authority established by the Tłįcho Agreement.

In July 2012, anthrax was believed to have killed 128 bison northwest of Fort Providence, N.W.T. By August of that year, officials had counted over 400 dead bison.

In an aerial survey from March 2013 by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, it showed more than half of the animals in the herd had died from the outbreak, according to the WRRB website.

The survey estimated the Mackenzie wood bison population was at 714, which is "well below the 1,000 animals that the Draft National Recovery Strategy has set as the minimum size for a wood bison population to be considered recovered."

It was the biggest outbreak to date, with the last big outbreak in 1994, which affected 172 animals.

And for the past eight years, harvesting the Mackenzie wood bison population has been off limits for harvesters.

But now that might change.

Rapid population growth

Armstrong says the population is doing much better — the latest survey from late winter 2019 shows the population is between 1,400 and 1,500.

He attributes the improvement to a natural rebound and also the forest fires in 2014 which burned much of their range and created a fresh habitat of forage in the regrowth period.

"The growth rate from 2013 has been fairly rapid," said Armstrong.

"With that kind of growth rate we think a limited harvest that's managed … would be acceptable and at least the population would maintain itself, if not increase."

Armstrong says the proposed plan is a limited harvest where 40 male bison, or bulls, can be harvested. It would be managed through a tag system, though he says it isn't determined who can hunt the bulls at this point.

The proposal, or the Mackenzie Bison Management Plan was drafted by Mackenzie Bison Working Group (MBWG). It includes several Métis and Indigenous leaders and representatives from other communities in the region.

In the proposal, it says there is some uncertainty around recent estimates for the population and that it has wide confidence intervals (24 per cent). It says that could increase the risk of over-harvesting if abundance is in fact lower than the 2019 estimate.

However, the group rejected the alternative option, which was to wait until the next survey is completed to confirm that the population has recovered enough for bull-only hunting. The next abundance estimate is scheduled for some time in February to March 2023.

Armstrong said if the proposal is accepted, the harvest could reopen as early as fall.

People can submit comments on the bison management proposal until Aug. 24.