Sahtu Secretariat questions N.W.T. government's numbers on caribou decline

The Sahtu Secretariat Inc. says it does not believe what the Northwest Territories government is saying about the recent decline in some barren-ground caribou populations.

SSI chairman Charles McNeely says situation not as dire as government is making it out to be

Charles McNeely, chairman of the Sahtu Secretariat Inc., says hunters in his region believe the Bluenose East caribou herd's numbers are greater than the Northwest Territories government's latest survey numbers. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

The Sahtu Secretariat Inc. says it does not believe what the Northwest Territories government is saying about the recent decline in some caribou populations.

The territorial Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced Tuesday that two herds of barren-ground caribou — the Bathurst and Bluenose East — have lost at least half of their populations in just three years.

But the Sahtu Secretariat says the government doesn't have the full picture.

"We live amongst the caribou," SSI chairman Charles McNeely told CBC News on Wednesday.

McNeely said he does not believe the situation is as dire as the department is making it out to be.

In a news release, SSI wrote, "Our hunters believe the herd numbers to be much greater than does the GNWT."

Part of the explanation for the low count, according to McNeely, is that some caribou have migrated to another herd, such as the Porcupine herd, for protection.

"I hear it from other people who were part of [the count] that when they do the count, they do it in one area and there's still some groups … they don't even count," he said.

"How much are [there] that we don't know about?"

According to the department's latest survey numbers, the Bluenose East herd's population has dropped from 39,000 in 2015 to just over 19,000 caribou this year.

A map of caribou herds on display at the N.W.T. government's briefing on caribou populations on Tuesday. The Bathurst (green) and Bluenose East (purple) are facing major population declines. (Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi / CBC News)

Not enough consultations, says board member

Joseph Kochon of Colville Lake, who is on SSI's board of directors, said there weren't enough consultations done with communities about these numbers.

"We've been involved in some of the surveys, and the way [the N.W.T. government] came up with the numbers doesn't really capture the whole herd," Kochon said.

Joseph Koshon of Colville Lake, N.W.T., is a member of the Sahtu Secretariat's board of directors. He says the territorial government has not done enough consultations with communities about the latest caribou counts. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)
"More needs to be done working closely with each of the communities to ensure that we have our traditional knowledge into the whole gathering of data."

In an email to CBC News, Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokesperson Meagan Wohlberg said the government had been working "with scientific and Traditional Knowledge experts to better understand the pressures affecting caribou."

The department surveyed the population using two methods: analyzing aerial photographs of the grouped herd and surveying calving grounds by counting cows and calves.

'We know they're in decline'

One solution to help the Bluenose East caribou population could be reducing the harvest, or closing it all together, according to the department.

That idea is not going over well with McNeely.

"We know they're in decline…. We don't hunt them as much anymore," he said.

"We don't go out in big community hunts and get a whole few hundred of them. We don't do that no more. We go out and try to help them."

Wohlberg wrote that the department has a "high degree of confidence the population estimates reflect the current status of the herd."

She said it's very unlikely any large groups of caribou that might have migrated have been missed between the Mackenzie River and the northeast mainland in Nunavut.