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A meeting of minds

Elders discuss caribou management

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Jan 22/01) - For thousands of years, Inuit and Dene depended on the Bathurst Caribou herd for their very lives.

Their knowledge of the land and the herd have been passed down through successive generations, information that graduate student Natasha Thorpe knew would pay off -- for more than just her Master's Thesis.

She has been involved with the Tuktu (caribou) and Nogat (calves) Project for five years.

Thorpe lived with Inuit elders and recorded their stories about the Bathurst caribou herd and how the weather and the environment have changed over the years.

The information she collected will be published later this year in a 200-page final report but it's already being put to try to protect the herd.

Thorpe, along with two elders from the West Kitikmeot and members of the research team, were invited to take part in a recent workshop hosted by the Bathurst Caribou Management Planning Committee. Held in Rae-Edzo, NT, in December, the workshop was part of efforts to develop a 10-year management plan for the caribou herd.

Ray Case, the organizer of the workshop and the manager of technical support for wildlife and fisheries in the Government of the Northwest Territories, said steps must be taken to protect the herd.

He said the since the level of human activity on the land used by the Bathurst herd has increased significantly in the last decade, it was important that a management plan be developed to ensure the population was protected for the future.

"A significant number of aboriginal people depend directly on the herd," explained Case.

Elders provide guidance

Because the Bathurst herd roams the land between Nunavut and the NWT, both Inuit and Dene elders were invited to take part in the meeting. Thorpe said it was fantastic.

"The bottom line was they presented their recommendations and their guidance in the form of Dogrib and Inuit knowledge," said Thorpe.

Accompanied by elders Tommy Kilaodluk and Paul Omilgoitok, Thorpe said they raised concerns about the health of the herd and made suggestions about how the animals could be managed.

Allice Legat also attended the meeting. Working with the Dogrib regional elders committee, Legat said the Dene elders had similar concerns, many of which were directly related to contaminants and the number of mines being developed.

"The elders are very concerned about the water because the caribou drink the water...and if there isn't enough food, that will affect them and their grandchildren," said Legat.

Mines a big concern

Sandra Eyegetok has worked alongside Thorpe on the Tuktu and Nogat project for the last few years.

She said like the Dene, Inuit elders were extremely concerned about the increase in the number of mines in the area and how they had the potential to adversely affect the herd.

"Most elders are concerned about the mining industry and how it affects the Bathurst caribou," said Eyegetok, a project translator and research assistant.

"When the mines open and then 20 or 30 years later they close, they leave so much waste around," she said.

"The elders say they find so much waste. They're worried about the contamination from the mines. If it goes into the caribou, it goes into the human food chain," said Eyegetok, from her home in Cambridge Bay.

December's meeting was just the start. Thorpe said the biggest hurdle would be to learn how to use traditional knowledge when formulating a management plan.

"It's the age-old discussion between local knowledge and scientists and how do we incorporate local knowledge into planning. It's a pretty novel circumstance," said Thorpe. "We're in a very enviable position because we have good science and good knowledge."

Government officials said they plan more consultation as they develop the plan and they committed themselves to holding another meeting sometime during the next fiscal year.

The goal is to have the new management plan ready by June 2003.