Plan proposed to protect dolphin and union caribou herd means further study

On Monday, the Conference of Management Authorities agreed on a management plan for the dolphin and union caribou herd, which are considered to be at-risk.

For now, no reason to limit dolphin or union caribou harvest

A caribou looks on near the Meadowbank gold mine in Nunavut. A plan has been reached to help protect the declining dolphin and union caribou. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

In the face of a declining population, a plan to help dolphin and union caribou in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut has been inked.

In 2015, dolphin and union caribou were declared a species of "special concern" by the N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. According to information found on the N.W.T. species at risk website, these caribou are "a species that may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats."

On Monday, the Conference of Management Authorities — the group of boards and governments responsible for N.W.T. species-at-risk — agreed on a management plan to protect herd numbers.

Typically when species are listed as a special concern the management group is given two years to create a management plan. However, this one was given a 15-month extension because the plan required the co-operation of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and federal governments, as well as 12 other co-management partners.

Thin, broken sea ice a concern for migration 

In 1997, the dolphin and union caribou population was above 30,000, but the population was 18,400 in 2015.

Sea ice is posing problems for the caribou, according to Brandon Laforest, a senior specialist of Arctic species and ecosystems with World Wildlife Fund Canada. The caribou migrate twice a year from Victoria Island to the mainland, but the animal struggles if sea ice isn't fully frozen or if it has been destroyed by ships. 

"That was identified as one of the major threats," Laforest said.

A draft of the management plan outlines concerns heard at a round-table discussion in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. Community members were alarmed because many caribou had been seen with large balls of ice on their fur after having fallen through the sea ice during migration.

Community members also spoke of groups of up to 150 caribou floating on pieces of ice in Coronation Gulf.

Harvest should not be limited, yet

Beyond outlining the main threats and positive influences on the animals, the plan recommends filling in knowledge gaps on things such as pregnancy rates, harvesting rates and predator-prey relationships.

"Dolphin and union caribou don't seem to have gotten to that stage where harvest should be stopped or limited, but it's definitely a knowledge gap in terms of how much harvest is going on," Laforest said. 

Further details will come in the next stage, which is the implementation agreement.

Brett Elkin, a representative on the species at risk management board, said this should be done by December 2018.

Ministers from the federal government, as well as the Nunavut and Northwest Territories governments, will then have to choose if they will accept the management plan by March 2018.

Feds now consider caribou endangered

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) first recommended the federal government list caribou as a species of special concern in 2004. But the federal government didn't list them as such until seven years after the recommendation. 

COSEWIC has since changed the status of the caribou from a special concern to endangered.

Laforest said he would have liked the federal government to have taken action sooner.

"From a territorial level, it's pushing it that it is taking the full timeline — but it is understandable that consultation is necessary," Laforest said.

"[But] at the federal level, it's completely unacceptable that it's taken this long for a management plan to be drafted."


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