December 5, 2008

Survey: Beverly caribou herd in big decline

“Measures aren’t effective.”

JIM BELL

The Beverly caribou herd's calving ground in the Kivalliq region must be shielded from more mineral exploration and turned into a protected area, the co-management board that oversees the herd declared last week.

"The caribou protection measures aren't effective. We are concerned that there is no long-range protection of the caribou calving range and that things are adding up," Ross Thompson, secretary treasurer of the Beverly and Qaminirjuaq Caribou Management Board, said in an interview.

The caribou management board issued the call after researchers notice a huge drop this past summer in the number of adult female caribou on the Beverly herd's calving grounds.

Last June, wildlife researchers from the Government of the Northwest Territories spotted only 93 caribou cows in the area, most of which lies south and west of Garry Lake on the Nunavut side of the division boundary.

In 1994, surveyors found 5,737 cows and in 2002, they found 2,629. But in 2007, that number dropped to 189 and slid even further this year.

"To go from a sample size of 5,700 down to less than 100, it's disturbing," Thompson said.

The GNWT researchers also found fewer females with calves: 15 calves for every 100 cows. The caribou management board says a healthy herd would show about 80 calves for every 100 cows.

Thompson said this summer's calving ground survey was not intended to produce a new population estimate for the herd. That hasn't been done since 1994, when a big population census produced an estimate of 276,000 animals.

But in recent years, the board fears the combined effects of mineral exploration, climate change, parasites, predators and harvesting may be causing that number to decline rapidly, Thompson said.

So since 2000, the caribou management board has called for a new population survey, but so far, none has been done.

To help protect the herd, the board makes five other recommendations:

Created in the 1980s, Beverly and Qaminirjuaq Caribou Management Board, comprises representatives from the governments of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well the Inuit, Dene, Métis and Cree peoples who depend on the herd to feed their families.

About 16,000 aboriginal people living in 22 communities harvest meat from the herd. A 2008 study done for the management board estimated the economic value of this harvest stands at around $15 million a year, with another $4 million earned by outfitters.

The same study shows Nunavut hunters are likely more dependent on caribou meat from these two herds than any other group, because the Nunavut harvest is worth nearly $12 million a year.

The Beverly herd's range stretches from northern Saskatchewan and the eastern Northwest Territories into the Kivalliq region.

The nearby Qaminirjuaq herd - whose population in 1994 was estimated at about 496, 000 - stretches from northern Manitoba into the southern Kivalliq region.

Daniel Shewchuk, the Government of Nunavut's new environment minister, was not able to comment on the issue until after Nunatsiaq News press-time this week. (We will report the GN's position on the issue next week.)

Judy McLinton, a spokesperson for the GNWT's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the Yellowknife government recognizes that the Beverly herd is in decline.

"We are already using the precautionary principle in managing our herds here." McLinton said.

She said that includes more restrictions on resident hunting and the development of a management strategy for all barren-ground caribou herds in the NWT, most of which are in trouble.

Meanwhile, regulatory bodies are now responding to those who complain about uranium exploration on caribou calving grounds - and uranium exploration firms aren't happy about it.

This past Sept. 25, Chuck Strahl, the northern affairs minister, said yes to a request from the Nunavut Impact Review Board that a uranium exploration application from Uravan Minerals Inc. be subjected to a "Part 5" review under the terms of the Nunavut land claims agreement.

This is a rare move to make in response to an exploration project in its early stages, because it will likely lead to a lengthy process that will include public hearings and numerous submissions by affected parties.

Upset by the decision, Uravan, whose uranium claims lie inside the Beverly herd's calving grounds, fired off an angry press release on Oct. 6.

"One of Uravan's greatest concerns in working in this remote region are the regulatory delays and uncertainties it now undertakes to gain access to mining claims to conduct low-impact entry-level exploration programs," Uravan's CEO, Larry Lahusen, said in the news release.

Lahusen went on to say that if the company knew then what it knows now, they would not have chosen to invest in Nunavut.

For their part, the caribou management board wants Uravan's application denied and no more mineral exploration permits issued in the Beverly calving area.

Ross Thompson says that's because female caribou must not be disturbed while they are calving.

"It's critical that they feed constantly while calving and not be distracted by stressors like helicopters," Thompson said.

Uravan is also upset about a decision made by the Mackenzie Valley Impact Review Board to recommend denial of Uravan's application to explore for uranium at a site in the NWT called the Boomerang Project.