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Surge in 'illegal and disrespectful' caribou hunt

Peary caribou on Bathurst Island. Wikimedia photo.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) will be ramping up enforcement efforts against hunters that break the law after it was reported that more than 50 caribou have been illegally harvested this winter.

The issue of improper hunting carried out along the ice road, is one that ENR faces yearly. However, the 50 cases of illegal harvesting that, ENR has been called to investigate eclipses the 10 incidents reported as of this time last year.

After hearing reports of improper hunting practices along the winter road to the diamond mines, Earl Evans, chair of the Beverly and Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board, went to investigate. What he found were a number of dead, unharvested caribou and hunters shooting without retrieving their kills.

Concerns over declining caribou populations are well known in the North as herds like the Bathurst caribou have shrunk to a fraction of their former size. ENR reported approximately 8,200 Bathurst caribou in 2018, less than half of the 20,000 reported only three years prior.

In a press conference Tuesday, ENR Minister Shane Thompson called attention to “illegal, disrespectful hunting practices,” further threatening the caribou population’s recovery.

In response, Thompson said the department is increasing enforcement along the winter road and increasing education efforts through programs like hunter education, family trapping and classroom seminars. Thompson added, however, “our work can only go so far.

“There is also an element of personal responsibility when exercising the right to harvest.”

Fines under the Wildlife Act vary depending on the infractions. Wildlife officer Lee Mandeville said he has laid charges of up to $30,000 per hunter for violations like abandoning wounded animals, hunting while inebriated, illegal possession of meat, littering, hunting within the mobile core Bathurst management zone.

In his column earlier this week, longtime Northerner Steven Ellis further highlighted the issue with stories of ENR officers “shell shocked” by what was found around Lac de Gras, an area just east of the Bathurst herd no hunting zone.

Ellis describes the area as "a war zone," with bullets whizzing around dangerously and wounded, unharvested caribou being left to die.

Having grown up on the land Mandeville said seeing “the cruel act of leaving live wounded animals on the land,” is upsetting for officers and harvesters who are themselves connected to the land.

ENR Minister Shane Thompson, ENR officer Lee Mandeville and Earl Evans emphasized the need for hunters to act responsibly and treat the land with respect. photo courtesy of the Government of the Northwest Territories

“I became an officer because I want to do my part in helping conserve our animals and to ensure that future generations like our grandkids can enjoy what privileges we had as kids,” Mandeville said.

“Inexperienced hunters just have no respect for the animals.”

Reflecting on his 55 years of hunting, Evans said the problem of improper harvesting practices is getting perceptibly worse.

“When I first hunted caribou, it was not like that,” he said. “There were less animals being taken and taken in a more respectful way. Every piece of meat was taken and used up.”

As a possible explanation for the surge in poor hunting practices, Evans said that Elders are moving away from hunting as more inexperienced hunters take their place.

An interest in hunting, he said, is a good thing but he counselled the importance of taking the time to “speak with an Elder that has that knowledge.

As temperatures continue to climb, Thomson expects the coming weeks will be some of the busiest of the hunting season.

The minister emphasized the need for hunters to exercise their right to hunt respectfully. While the department can employ certain enforcement and preventative actions, "it's about respecting the zone, but also respecting the hunt and the harvest. Only take what you really need," Thompson said.

"When I talk to Elders and leaders, there are real fears that these practices will push us towards a future no one wants to see. One where caribou aren’t there, one where their children won’t be able to bring meat home for their kids."