After over 100 caribou illegally killed, N.W.T. minister turns to hunters for help

In a season where 143 caribou have been illegally hunted from a vulnerable herd, the territory’s environment minister says he’s open to any ideas on how to prevent illegal harvesting.

143 caribou have been illegally hunted this winter, department says

A file photo of Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Shane Thompson at the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly. Thompson says recent illegal hunting on winter roads around Yellowknife has left him 'very upset.' (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

After a winter season where illegal hunting of caribou from the N.W.T.'s vulnerable Bathurst caribou herd has dominated headlines, the territory's environment minister says he's looking for ideas on how to prevent future incidents.

"We're open to anything and everything that makes sense," Shane Thompson, minister of Environment and Natural Resources, said on CBC's Trail's End.

"I'd just like to encourage the harvesters, if they've got some ideas, to reach out."

Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, confirmed that 143 caribou had been illegally hunted this winter, though added that the number was not unprecedented.

"In fact, there have been other years where we have seen more illegal hunting," Westwick wrote.

But what has made this winter season remarkable is that most of those animals were killed in just two incidents, where 29 and 43 animals respectively were illegally hunted.

"I'm totally disappointed," Thompson said on Thursday. "I'm very upset."

"The hunting practices of a majority of people were outstanding. They did a better job, they were following the laws and were out there doing what they were supposed to be doing," he said.

"Unfortunately, what we've seen is some people who didn't want to follow rules."

Bathurst herd suffers

More than 100 caribou were illegally hunted within the mobile core Bathurst caribou management zone, where hunting caribou is prohibited.

The zone protects the Bathurst caribou herd, which has seen its population drop precipitously in the last two decades, according to numbers from the department of Environment and Natural Resources.

While it was estimated at 186,000 animals in 2003, it is now estimated at just 8,200.

Both scientific research and traditional knowledge indicates some significant fluctuations in caribou populations are normal, but the severe drop in the herd led to the introduction of a ban on hunting them in 2015.

"One [animal killed] is bad on that herd," Thompson said. "When you start taking [those] kind of numbers … it really hurts the work that we are trying to do to help the herd recover."

The Bathurst caribou herd has declined from 186,000 animals to just 8,200 animals over the last two decades. (Petter Jacobsen)

Thompson said his department has stepped up enforcement in the mobile zone, and is carrying out hunter education courses in local communities in partnership with Indigenous governments.

But he also said he's looking for new ideas from hunters as to how to prevent illegal harvests.

"Our next step is … to assemble harvesters to come up with new ideas to encourage respectful harvesting … and also meet with our elders," he said.

"There may be something out there that we're missing."

But some hunters may have reason to be skeptical that Thompson's department is as open to new ideas as he suggests.

Local caribou management plans developed in Deline and Colville Lake and based on traditional hunting methods and herd management are yet to be implemented by his department.

Recovery still possible, minister says

Thompson said he still believes the herd can recover, "if we're respectful of it."

He added wolf management and the environment play a role too.

"It's all-encompassing."

High-profile instances of caribou wastage have attracted headlines this year, even though illegal hunting overall is consistent with past years. (Kyle Mandeville)

Indeed, some hunters and environmentalists have criticized the territory's emphasis on illegal hunting, when other human factors, like mining activity and road construction, may be playing a larger role in the depopulation of the herd.

Thompson said he's concerned this winter's incidents risk painting other hunters "with the same brush."

"We don't want to stop people from hunting, we want to make sure that people … follow the rules," he said. "If they're very respectful and do it right, we wouldn't have this challenge."

Little wastage

One silver lining: despite lots of illegal hunting, there has still been relatively little waste.

When illegal harvests are discovered, the meat is seized and stored so that it doesn't rot, Thompson said.

It's then brought before a justice of the peace who decides how to allocate it to local communities and elders.

In the end, Westwick confirmed, from 143 illegally killed caribou, 19 carcasses were wasted.

With files from Lawrence Nayally