The future of the Thelon
Tour operator questions proposal for Thelon Game Sanctuary

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 12/99) - The wildlife and habitat of today's Thelon Game Sanctuary is a snapshot of what the Barrens looked like thousands of years ago, complete with muskox, glacial lakes and undisturbed landscapes.

But the release of the final draft of the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary Management Plan has outfitter Thomas Faess worried about his eco-tourism business, and the environment that the sanctuary was designed to protect.

Faess owns and operates Great Canadian Ecoventures. He's been leading minimum-impact wildlife photography and eco-tours into the Thelon for 23 years.

"We have systematically been denied access to meetings leading up to the creation of the final management plan," Faess said.

"It's disturbing that the government ignored someone with the kind of experience and knowledge we have of the Thelon Game Sanctuary."

Since 1927, when the federally-protected sanctuary was founded, there has been no hunting or development allowed within the Thelon Game Sanctuary's borders.

As the map was re-drawn to define Nunavut, it became clear that 60 per cent of the sanctuary would fall under the new territory's jurisdiction. The new management plan was developed to reflect the change.

The document states three specific management objectives. They include protecting and maintaining the sanctuary as a viable natural system, protecting the area's spiritual and cultural values and allowing opportunities for use that are consistent with the sanctuary's natural and cultural values.

Faess is quick to point out that within the management goals, there is no specific mention of protecting the wildlife.

"It's ludicrous that they would propose a Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary Management Plan and not have a plan for managing the wildlife within it," Faess said.

That may have been done, Faess said, because the new policy provides "for the harvesting of wildlife by aboriginal people in the sanctuary."

It's something that the report concedes "is a fundamentally different perspective for management than has been the case in the past."

That means wildlife that previously had little to no contact with snowmachines and guns can be hunted and shot by aboriginals. Faess said the area would no longer be pristine, and the consequences of hunting the core group of animals that roam the sanctuary would be harsh.

"If the natural element is degraded to any degree, then the value of tourism in the sanctuary will be equally degraded. I'm not against hunting, I'm against hunting in a federally-protected wildlife sanctuary," Faess said.

He said once animals have been subjected to hunts by snowmachines, they become shy and often impossible to stalk for photographic purposes.

"Because I had no input in the creation of this plan, I'm concerned for my future as an outfitter. But I'm also being forced to take the stand of an environmentalist whose greatest concern now lies with the protection of the sanctuary."

Since its inception in 1927, the Thelon Game Sanctuary has grown to include a 52,000-square kilometre area centred around the remote Thelon River Basin. It's an area that's been recognized by the United Nations as one of the 10 most pristine sites in the world.

The Akiliniq Planning Committee (APC), based in Baker Lake, and the Rankin Inlet-based Kivalliq Inuit Association (KIA), were two of the interest groups instrumental in bringing the management plan to light.

APC chair Edwin Evo said any concern surrounding aboriginal hunting in the sanctuary is misplaced and unwarranted. In his opinion, the final plan is "excellent."

"(The aboriginal hunting provision) is there only for survival hunting, commercial hunting will remain strictly outlawed," Evo said.

"The elders of Baker Lake put a lot of input into it and they're the ones who are concerned with preserving the sanctuary for future generations. They recognize that any wildlife you can name are produced in that area and distributed throughout Nunavut."

He said the original mandate of the sanctuary has been upheld.

"Elders are only concerned with the protection of the land, water and wildlife. That's not a new thing," Evo said. "According to elders here, the new management plan accomplishes those goals."

KIA president Paul Kaludjak said the aboriginal hunting provision changes nothing because Inuit have always hunted in the area.

"In spite of the sanctuary's regulations, the Inuit have always harvested within the borders," Kaludjak said. "For our culture, it remains pretty much the same. Our elders still don't see any particular boundaries and they will continue to hunt as they see fit, regardless if it's a sanctuary or not."

Faess said the final plan is currently before RWED Minister Stephen Kakfwi and DIAND Minister Jane Stewart, waiting their deliberation and signature.