As the tundra caribou go in the North, so go 25,000 people. Now the “deer” face extinction. Here's what’s being done to lessen the tragedy that must follow— and is already beginning

RALPH HEDLIN February 23 1963


As the tundra caribou go in the North, so go 25,000 people. Now the “deer” face extinction. Here's what’s being done to lessen the tragedy that must follow— and is already beginning

RALPH HEDLIN February 23 1963


As the tundra caribou go in the North, so go 25,000 people. Now the “deer” face extinction. Here's what’s being done to lessen the tragedy that must follow— and is already beginning


ANGOOTEE’MAR’IT — the name means "Man's Man" — was a great hunter who died by his own hand not long ago. He was the shaman of a small group of Eskimos. So adept was he at killing the Barren Lands caribou that his people felt he had some supernatural power over game. The caribou provided for most of his people's needs: meat, sleeping robes, clothing. Sinews from the caribou's back were the Eskimos' thread; its fat was their fuel: its antlers their tool handles. A few years ago. the caribou began to grow fewer and fewer. Then a winter came when "Man’s Man" could not find even one of the tundra deer to kill. With the hunger aching in his belly. "Man's Man" called his people to his shack. He asked Tagalik. one of the women, to fasten a thong to the ceiling. For nearly an hour he poured out his bitterness. His power was gone: he was failing his people. When everyone had left “Man's Man" hanged himself.

This story was told to me by the adopted son of "Man's Man." a young

Eskimo named Pammeeoolik, who now lives at Coral Harbor on the south side of Southampton Island where there is a chance to live from sea mammals and fish. So does Tagalik, the woman who strung up the thong by which their shaman took his life. They are some of the thousands of Eskimos who have, in the past decade or less, been forced to give up a life their people have known for generations. The staple of that life, the Barren Lands caribou—or "deer,” as the Eskimos call them—seems to be running out.

Another Barren Lands Eskimo I know is Mikkie. Mikkie was a fine hunter of the caribou at Henik Lake in the District of Keewatin. Now he lives at Whale Cove on Hudson Bay. He no longer hunts, for the idea of venturing out on the sea ice terrifies him. He is fifty years old. and his living comes from welfare cheques or from casual labor for one of the federal government departments that maintain offices at Whale Cove. Mikkie is a beaten man.

The animal this people has lived on for centuries ranges over the sweep of tundra from the tree line north through the Arctic islands, west from Hudson Bay to the Mackenzie River. Stories of great herds of the Barren Lands caribou are found in white man's reports as early as 1770. Scientists' guesses about how many animals there were in this great unfenced pasture have varied. A consensus of the most accurate reports would probably put the figure at somewhere over two million before 1940. But in 1949 the Canadian Wildlife Service, working with airplanes and aerial photos, estimated that the herds had dwindled to fewer than seven hundred thousand. A new census in 1955 was frighteningly lower: two hundred and twenty-five thousand. No accurate count has been made since but no scientist would be surprised if the figure were now under two hundred thousand — probably no more than a tenth of what it was only twenty-five years ago.

For the twenty-five thousand people who looked to the caribou for sustenance — mainly Eskimos but including Indians and a few whites — this figure is an omen of disaster.

At the very least it calls on them to make a totally new way of life, or die in the attempt. What caused the decimation? And can the decline be stopped or must the barren lands be swept clear of people, leaving the few remaining caribou to become a curiosity like the plains buffalo?

The answer to the second question, of course, depends on the answer to the first. There are a number of

causes for the drastic decline of the caribou herds — a series of heavy winters, some outbreaks of disease — but it is now generally agreed that the two most important are wolves and men.

The number of wolves in the Barren Lands — biologists sometimes call them caribou wolves — has gone up and down in cycles over the centuries. It reached an unnatural low in the twenties and thirties when trapping was profitable. Wolf pelts then brought fifty or sixty dollars each, and the trapper got an extra twenty-five-dollar bounty from the government. Eskimos, Indians and whites all trapped these wolves for money. During the war, and after, the price dropped severely and the bounty was removed; it is no longer profitable to trap wolves. As a result, the wolf population surged back strongly. Northerners figure that one wolf will kill fourteen caribou in a year, and as the number of wolves has gone up, the number of caribou has gone down.

Men have created an equally serious problem. Although not known as wanton killers. Eskimos by tradition killed all the caribou they could, when they could. In earlier times they couldn’t kill many. The caribou is a strong swimmer and an Eskimo paddling after one in a canoe, trying to spear it, had his work cut out for him. But with the advent of the white man in the North the native hunters got modern equipment: outboard motors that can push a canoe along faster than a swimming deer; repeating rifles that can slaughter a herd. Here is what Dr. A. W. F. Banfield, then

chief mammalogist of the Canadian Wildlife Service, wrote in 1956 in an article called The Caribou Crisis:

"Orgies of killing still take place at several crossings . . . Each year thousands of caribou carcasses are abandoned — their bloated bodies crowd the shores of northern lakes.

"At other points men, women and children pepper the passing columns with small-calibre rifle slugs. Little effort is made to salvage the carcasses of those that escape from the scene of the shooting and die of their wounds. During the summer months caribou meat is often abandoned after the hides have been stripped from the carcasses for clothing . .

The only encouraging thing about these two main causes of the caribou's decline is that something can be done about them. If people are senselessly slaughtering animals, they can be taught not to and government officials are now working hard at educating the natives concerned. The wolf population can be controlled too, to some extent. As Joe Robertson of the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources — and a noted hunter who once to my knowledge hunted down an entire pack of seven wolves from an airplane — says: "We don’t want to exterminate the caribou wolf, but too many wolves preying on too few caribou could have had only one end result. We poisoned numbers of wolves — we've stopped that now — and killed others in other ways, and now we have at least reduced the pressure on the herd.”

But science still doesn’t know enough about the animal it is out to save. For the past few years, biologists from the federal government and from the governments of the three prairie provinces and the Northwest Territories Council have been crisscrossing the tundra counting the caribou herds, examining them for disease, assessing their calf crops and generally trying to find out what makes them come and go. One group from Saskatchewan and the Canadian Wildlife Service practically lived with a herd in the Stony Rapid area for eighteen months.

The most ingenious device these scientists have come up with yet is a plan to put identification tags on living caribou. I got a close-up of this scheme a couple of falls ago, and at the same time 1 saw the drama of the disappearing caribou.

I spent a week with a caribou-tagging team in northern Manitoba. We worked from the shore of Nejanilini Lake, about forty miles south of the border of the NWT. The caribou were expected to swim the half-mile neck of the lake. Caribou follow surprisingly regular courses of migration although in recent years, of course, there have not been enough to use all the paths that hunters and scientists know about. One of the Chippewayan Indians on our tagging party had come from a band that used to live at the very crossing we were working. They had called their village Caribou. But in 1952 the herd didn’t show up, and the band had to trek a hundred and forty miles to Churchill and relief. Their village was now abandoned, and the deserted, ghostly buildings, including the Hudson’s Bay C ompanv stores and the Anglican

church, were a depressing reminder of what we were there for.

That fall the herd did come. Without hesitation they waded into the lake. When they had gone beyond their depth, they began to swim. As soon as the first deer were near midchannel, the taggers broke from cover in their motor-driven canoes. One man reached out with a sort of exaggerated shepherd’s crook and hooked a caribou about the neck. Another grabbed the animal’s ear and. with a pair of long-handled pliers, clamped a numbered tag through the ear shell. From the tags fluttered eight-inch yellow streamers.

In this way scientists have already tagged more than two thousand animals. They have asked hunters to report immediately if they kill a tagged caribou, and by piecing together these reports with what they know from aerial surveys and other means of investigation, they hope to learn enough about the herds to be able to make it easier for them to survive.

There have been some ironic sidelights to this project. The Chippewayan Indian who came from Nejanilini Lake told me of an Eskimo he knew named Kooshcrak. Koosherak had spent nearly a whole day stalking a lone caribou. Finally he got within easy rifle range. Then he saw a yellow streamer. “I knew this deer belonged to the government,” he told my Indian friend, "and I did not kill him.”

Whatever the scientists I e a r n, though, it will obviously take a long time to get the herds back up to a size that could support twenty-five thousand people again. The immediate problem is what to do with the people who have to be taken from the Barren Lands and moved closer to the sea.

This move can pose difficult questions. Too many hunters, like my friend Mikkie, simply cannot make the change. One Barren Lands Eskimo was so disturbed by being moved to Rankin Inlet that, once there, he refused to leave his house for six months, and he and his family had to rely on the charity of their neighbors. In their new homes the inland Eskimos often refuse to mingle with the people who have always lived on the coast, and a few communities have broken out in outright hostility.

But there are many signs of hope too. The Eskimos are, after all, an adaptable and resourceful people. An Eskimo named Ulimaumik, who is, I would guess, about forty, was moved a few years ago from his Barren Lands home to Rankin Inlet. From cash he earned at casual jobs he was able to buy a bicycle. Now, when spring melts the thick snow from the Hudson Bay ice Ulimaumik mounts his bicycle, puts his Winchester 30-30 rifle into a scabbard he has hung on the side, and rides out across the ice, sometimes as far as fifteen miles, until he finds a small jar seal. Then he stalks and kills the seal. With a length of rope he attaches the carcass to his bicycle and skids his prize back to the village.

And Ilungayak, a boy of nineteen, is one of the top seal and whale hunters at Whale Cove, with a canoe, motor, rifle and harpoon of his own. Ilungayak is the son of Mikkie — the man who, at fifty, is afraid of the sea ice and therefore beaten. ★