ENVIRONMENT

A battle to save the caribou

John Barber November 16 1981
ENVIRONMENT

A battle to save the caribou

John Barber November 16 1981

A battle to save the caribou

ENVIRONMENT

John Barber

Vast herds of caribou still throng the boundless lichen pastures of the subarctic, the topography creased by the weaving tracks of the antlered beasts. They are the emblem of the North, just as the great bison herds once symbolized the southern plains. Yet the caribou, like the bison, could disappear completely by the end of this decade.

The four great caribou herds of the Northwest Territories were once comprised of 670,000 animals. Today only 270,000 remain. The wildlife biologists who study the caribou cite two reasons for the decline: overhunting by northern residents, mostly native people, and predation from the animal’s other enemy, the arctic wolf.

Yet neither poses as great a threat as the disagreement over what remedial action to take. As veteran caribou watcher Tom Bergerud of the University of Victoria says, “The natives are up in arms, the politicians are scared silly, and the caribou are going to pay the price.”

The controversy came to a head last month when the various governments joined local native groups in their initiative to form an official board to manage the animals. Composed of eight delegates drawn from native user groups and five from government, the new board replaces a committee of scientists widely criticized for its political ineffectiveness. Although it has yet to receive its mandate, the new board is expected to recommend management policy that will satisfy both native hunters and government.

Yet biologists, the veterans in the battle to save the caribou, see no reason to alter their forecasts. They point to the natives’ intransigence, saying that regulation of the hunt is all but impossible in the absence of land claims settlements in the area ranged by the caribou. Typifying the dominant native view is Michael Amarook, a resident of Baker Lake, N.W.T., and vice-president of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. “I was

brought up as a hunter,” he recalls. “When I was a child, each hunter bought 50 boxes of bullets. Now they don’t even use 10 boxes in a season. There’s no over-hunting. Most of the older people believe the caribou are increasing, not declining.”

The natives argue that the biologists’ method of surveying caribou by tagging

them at crowded water crossings causes unnecessary drowning. They also claim that counting herds from low-flying aircraft upsets pregnant females and reduces calf yields. “I really think those charges are baseless,” says Frank Miller of the Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton. “Until now there just has not been the level of activity to cause those problems.” Biologist George Calef, whose Caribou and the Barren-lands recently appeared in bookstores, argues that even the severest forms of manhandling have been shown to have no effect on calf yields. The natural life cycle of caribou includes experiences far more terrifying than the sight of an airplane, he contends. “How many times are the caribou chased for miles in cold weather by native hunters on snowmobiles?” he asks. “It’s unbelievable that anyone who could do that would claim that harassment by airplanes is killing caribou.”

The biologists claim that modern hunters, equipped with high-powered

rifles and snow machines, are simply too effective for the caribou. Even though the natives kill fewer animals today than they did when the caribou constituted their sole source of meat, says Miller, the herds were 10 times larger then, and the proportion of animals harvested was not much greater. “Now it’s almost a form of recreational hunting; they are almost like whites,” he says. Moreover, the practice of “surplus hunting” (killing more than needed to ensure a good supply) still prevails. “The native people have no concept of conservation and there is no precedent for it in their culture,” Miller maintains. “When they were living off the land they would not have survived if they had practised conservation as we define it now.”

Regulating the native hunt is not the only sticky political wicket between the caribou and survival. Most wildlife biologists agree that 30 per cent of the arctic I wolf population must be liquidated to give the caribou even a fighting chance. Although wolf control has become widely accepted in the scientific community, the biologists fear the public reaction to its implementation.

Accepting the biologists’ controversial view of “scientific wildlife management”—including hunting restrictions and wolf killings— will be one of the great challenges facing the new board. Even though the native leaders who originally lobbied for the board might be persuaded to accept some form of restraint in the traditionally wide-open caribou hunt, any measure is expected to face enormous resistance among northern hunters. In the absence of any political will to legislate hunting quotas, the job becomes one purely of moral suasion against a background of considerable antagonism toward the scientists. “I sympathize with their [the natives’] suspicion; a lot of it is justified,” says Calef. “I would love to see a selfregulating system with no need of interference, but I’d rather see management than extinction.”