YELLOWKNIFE — Declining caribou herds have led the Northwest Territories to ban all hunting in a large section of the North, the largest ban yet for aboriginals who depend on the harvest for a large part of their diet.
“We have determined the most reasonable conservation method is to limit the harvest of caribou from the Bathurst herd,” N.W.T. Environment Minister Michael Miltenberger said in a release.
The new restrictions, which take effect Jan. 1, ban all hunting in the Bathurst herd’s winter range. The no-hunting zone includes most of the central part of the territory from the north shore of Great Slave Lake to the boundary with Nunavut.
Hunting by non-aboriginals will also be banned over a larger area.
Concern over the herd’s decline has been building for years. But last summer, survey results carried a distinct whiff of impending catastrophe.
N.W.T. biologists estimated the Bathurst herd of the central barrens had fallen to 32,000 from more than 120,000 animals in 2006 — a 75 per cent implosion representing the loss of nearly 90,000 caribou in only three years.
The Bathurst herd is not the only one whose numbers falling. Scientists suggest nine of Canada’s 11 barren-ground caribou herds are in decline.
Researchers suspect one herd, the adjacent Beverly herd, has virtually disappeared despite numbering 280,000 animals only 15 years ago.
Aboriginal hunters in the N.W.T. have gotten used to hunting restrictions over the last few years.
Three self-government bodies responsible for huge swaths of tundra have either implemented or are considering quotas on an animal that many consider a walking grocery store.
For some communities, the quotas halve the number of caribou they are allowed to take — real hardship in a society where caribou is often on the table three or four times weekly.
One group has banned all hunting in a small section of the territory’s northwest corner.
An N.W.T. spokesman said the ban will remain in place until the Wek’eezhii Renewable Resources Board, the aboriginal co-management board for the area, comes up with a recovery plan of its own.
Caribou herds have always fluctuated wildly. But scientists fear that this time, new factors such as climate change and industrial development will block their ability to bounce back.
Some hunters and aboriginal elders doubt that the herds are down at all, and suggest scientists are simply looking for them in the wrong place.