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GNWT investigates illegal hunting of 40 caribou

One of the 40 illegally harvested caribou found near the winter road about 20 km southeast of the Diavik Diamond Mine on April 5 by Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) officers, a discovery that ENR Minister Shane Thompson called a "big disappointment" that turned back months of progress on encouraging respectful harvesting. image courtesy of the GNWT

The GNWT is investigating after 40 illegally hunted caribou were found on the winter road southeast of the Diavik Diamond Mine on April 5.

The carcasses were found about 250 km northeast of Yellowknife, along the winter road 25 km north of MacKay Lake and approximately 20 km southeast of Diavik, said Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) spokesperson Mike Westwick, on Tuesday.

It is believed the animals were killed on April 4 while the road was closed due to a winter storm. They were found around noon the next day by ENR officers on aerial patrol after the storm had cleared.

ENR is seeking evidence to trace the kill sites to individuals and asks that people come forward with information that can hold people accountable “for these disrespectful, illegal practices.”

“We’re urging anyone with any information about individuals who may have hunted illegally, or who brought back a large amount of caribou from a hunt, between April 4 – 5 to come forward and provide a statement. Call 867-873-7181 to provide the information you have to hold illegal hunters accountable for harming the caribou herds,” Westwick said.

Enforcement of rules

Seven charges have been laid as of Tuesday on individuals who have violated caribou harvesting rules this year. More charges are expected.

Enforcement along the winter road has led to 13 investigations, some of which are ongoing.

In addition, three check stations have been set up as part of the enforcement effort, said ENR Minister Shane Thompson.

'Months of progress turned back'

Thompson said the discovery of the 40 carcasses is a “big disappointment for a winter road caribou harvesting season.”

Despite enforcement work and a public awareness campaign to promote respectful practices including community monitors and Indigenous governments, one day of illegal harvesting can turn back months of progress, he said.

“While we know most follow the law and harvest with respect, actions like these are unacceptable, disrespectful, and inconsistent with what Elders have taught for generations. In speaking with Elders, the consequences are clear. If these practices continue, there may not be any caribou for future generations. And our communities will bear the brunt of it.
“Simply put, strong and immediate action is required to protect our caribou and I am prepared to take all necessary steps to preserve our herds. It’s clear that despite all that we’re currently doing, more needs to be done. And I have heard the call for action.”

Ongoing serious efforts from leaders and harvesters are needed across the NWT to influence behaviours and make respect for caribou a central value.

“I’ve directed the department to work with Indigenous governments and organizations to assemble harvesters to come up with new ideas for encouraging respectful caribou harvesting and support recovery. I will then meet with the leadership of our co-management partners to discuss these ideas and how we can continue to work together.
“If we want the Bathurst Herd to reach recovery, we must continue to take action together.”

Be respectful of caribou, says YKDFN chief

Ernest Betsina, Ndilo chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) said he can't comment on the illegal harvesting of April 4 due to the ongoing investigation.

However, he said his First Nation asks that people respect the caribou in YKDFN traditional territory, which includes the area north of Yellowknife and of the diamond mines.

“(Caribou) numbers are very sensitive right now. I just wish that people would take responsibility when they're out hunting caribou. They have to be respectful of the caribou. They're a food source and we have to make sure the caribou is around for many generations to come. The Elders have taught us and they advised us to not over-hunt. We try to pass on that teaching to our members as much as we can through word of mouth, through families and by emails in our bulletins.”

Worsening situation of illegal hunting

The carcasses found on April 5 exacerbate a particularly problematic winter for caribou hunting, after ENR found that more than 50 caribou were hunted illegally as of early March.

By the same period last year there were only 10 incidents reported to ENR.

This winter's illegal harvests come as concerns continue to grow over declining caribou populations in the North, with the Bathurst caribou herd shrinking to around 8,200 animals in 2018, less than half of the 20,000 reported only three years previously.

Fines under the Wildlife Act vary depending on the infractions, said ENR wildlife officer Lee Mandeville in a news conference in March.

Mandeville said he has laid charges as high as $30,000 per hunter for violations like abandoning wounded animals, hunting while inebriated, illegal possession of meat, littering, and hunting within the mobile core Bathurst management zone.