In Depth

Nunavut Inuit back caribou calving grounds protection

Inuit groups are relieved that the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board has re-affirmed its commitment to full protection of caribou calving grounds in light of a recent, and controversial, policy change by the Government of Nunavut.

'I stand firmly with the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board,' Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Association

A lone caribou roams the tundra near Nunavut's Meadowbank Gold Mine. 'If the Nunavut government wants to give up the full protection of caribou calving grounds, it’s time to change the Nunavut government,' said David Toolooktook of the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Association. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Inuit groups are relieved that the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board has re-affirmed its commitment to full protection of caribou calving grounds in light of a recent, and controversial, policy change by the Government of Nunavut.

"I stand firmly with the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board wanting full protection of our caribou calving grounds," said David Toolooktook from the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Association.

Last week, the Nunavut government announced it would no longer push for a ban on development in the caribou calving grounds in the territory's forthcoming — and first-ever — territory-wide land use plan. Instead, it now wants to see proposed developments reviewed on a case-by-case basis. 

"If the Nunavut government wants to give up the full protection of caribou calving grounds, it's time to change the Nunavut government and elect new MLAs," said Toolooktook. "Then maybe we'll get the government that supports its people."

Limiting development

'We’re talking about limiting development that happens in those very important sensitive areas,' said NWMB’s acting chair, Daniel Shewchuk. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
The NWMB has called for full protection of caribou calving and post calving grounds, including a ban on mineral, oil and gas exploration and development, and the construction of transportation infrastructure.

"We're talking about limiting development that happens in those very important sensitive areas," said NWMB's acting chair, Daniel Shewchuk.

​Shewchuk stressed that these areas are a small fraction of the land in Nunavut and that the board is not against development.

"Caribou under our mandate is a very important species to Nunavut, and we are going to protect those animals as much as we can for future generations," he said.

The NWMB met with the Government of Nunavut prior to releasing its statement Tuesday to discuss the concerns they had received from hunters and trappers groups from across the territory.   

"What they stated was that the position was made from the executive council," said Shewchuk.

"I can't speak to why they came up with this decision," added Shewchuk, who stressed that the NWMB's position on caribou protection is based on science as well as traditional knowledge.

'For the sake of a few jobs'

'We can't just go and develop these precious grounds for the sake of a few jobs,' said Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA Paul Okalik. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
"I am very happy that the wildlife board sees that these very important animals to our diets should remain protected today and tomorrow," said Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA Paul Okalik, who has been a vocal opponent of the government's policy reversal.

"It's unfortunate that our own government does not see the light and the concerns raised by a lot of Nunavummiut," added Okalik, who said that they should pay close attention to the warnings of experts on caribou management.

"We can't just go and develop these precious grounds for the sake of a few jobs."

'Need to protect caribou is very high'

"The need to protect caribou is very high," said Barnie Aggark, the chair of the Aqigiq Hunters and Trapper Association in Chesterfield Inlet. "We hear this concern from all over the territory."

Caribou from the Bathurst herd in August. (GNWT)
In recent years, the number of caribou has radically declined on Baffin Island, forcing an emergency hunting ban in January of 2015

"We don't want to have that situation fall over the whole territory," said Aggark.

The low caribou population on Baffin Island means the Kivalliq herds are feeding Inuit communities in both regions, Aggark pointed out. 

Nunavut is also home to the calving grounds for several caribou herds whose range extends into nearby provinces and territories.

"We need some good protection in the caribou calving grounds because the core calving grounds are the main places where caribou need to nurse their new calves," Aggark said.

Caribou petition

Hilu Tagoona, left, of Baker Lake says, 'with the price of food as it is, and poverty touching all the communities in Nunavut, we depend on the caribou so much.' (Submitted by Hilu Tagoona)
Baker Lake's Hilu Tagoona has started a petition to raise awareness about the need for caribou protection and to try to reverse the Government of Nunavut's position on this issue.

"The response has been amazing," said Tagoona.

"We're getting people from all the communities in Nunavut that are not pleased with the government's decision, and we're getting responses from people from other provinces as well that are affected by herds that calve in Nunavut," added Tagoona.

Tagoona says part of the incentive to launch this position came from her concern for her two children.

"It's up to us to carry that for our children," said Tagoona. "Who's going to speak for the caribou if our government leader are not going to?" 

Tagoona says in communities like Baker Lake, caribou keep people from going without food.

"It's very much a necessity, with the price of food as it is, and poverty touching all the communities in Nunavut, we depend on the caribou so much."

Perilous state of caribou

The current state of barren-ground caribou herds across the Canadian Arctic is perilous, with all of the major herds in decline. (ENR/GNWT)
The current state of barren-ground caribou herds across the Canadian Arctic is perilous, with all of the major herds in decline.

On Baffin Island, the herd has declined 95 per cent since the 1990s, with an estimated 5,000 remaining caribou according to WWF-Canada.

The Qamanirjuaq herd was assessed in 2014, with an estimated 264,700, down from estimates of 496,0000 in 1994.

A 2015 survey of the Bathurst herd estimated the population at 20,000, down from 470,000 caribou in 1986.

The Bluenose‐East herd has declined from 118,000 in 2010 to 38,600 in 2015.

The Bluenose‐West herd has dropped from a high of 112,360 in 1992 to 15,300 in 2015.

The NWMB has held its position — that protection of the calving grounds is necessary — since May of 2014, when it first made its submission to the Nunavut Planning Commission on its draft land use plan.  

The planning commission says it will hold public hearings on its draft Nunavut Land Use Plan in November 2016.

Those hearings will include discussions on what protections are in place for the caribou. 

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.

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